Steve Jobs resigned as Apple's CEO. When did we start using three letters for corporate honchos?

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Aug. 25 2011 6:52 PM

CEO, COO, CFO, WTF

When did we start naming corporate honchos with three letters?

Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. Click image to expand.
Steve Jobs and Tim Cook

Steve Jobs resigned from his position as Apple's CEO, or chief executive officer, Wednesday. Taking his place is Tim Cook, previously the company's COO, or chief operating officer. They also have a CFO, and, at one point or another, the company has had a CIO and CTO, too. When did we start calling corporate bosses C-this-O and C-that-O?

The 1970s. The phrase chief executive officer has been used, if at times rarely, in connection to corporate structures since at least the 19th century. (See, for instance, this 1888 book on banking law in Canada.) About 40 years ago, the phrase began gaining ground on president as the preferred title for the top director in charge of a company's daily operations. Around the same time, the use of CEO in printed material surged and, if the Google Books database is to be believed, surpassed the long-form chief executive officer in the early 1980s. CFO has gained popularity, too, but at a much slower rate.

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The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary published its first entries for CEO and CFO in January of this year. The entries' first citations are a 1972 article in the Harvard Business Review and a 1971 Boston Globe article, respectively. (Niche publications were  using   the   initials at least a half-decade earlier.) The New York Times seems to have printed its first CEO in a table graphic for a 1972 article, "Executives' Pay Still Rising," when space for the full phrase might have been lacking. It didn't make its way into the regular column text until 1982 and only as part of a quotation. In 1986, the Times published an article lamenting a spate of corporate name changes. The final paragraph: " 'President, United States Steel' conveyed a certain majesty. Compare that with 'CEO, USX.' This is a trend that abbreviates more than words." Yet the Times itself soon succumbed: Less than a year later, in February 1987, the paper printed what appears to be its first CEO outside the context of a table, quotation, reader-submitted obituary, or book title.

The Associated Press added CEO ("Acceptable on first reference as a title before a name or as a stand-alone abbreviation for chief executive officer") to its annually updated Stylebook, the word-usage bible for many English-language newspapers and magazines, in 2002. Later editions include guidelines for CFO and COO.

The rise of CEO and CFO begot scores of imitators, all aspiring to join the so-called C-suite. In the world of business, you're bound eventually to run into a CBO ("business" or "brand"), CCO ("communications" or "credit"), CIO ("information" or "investment"), CPO ("process," "procurement," or "product"),  and so on.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Sally Jacobsen of the Associated Press.

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