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

Answers to your questions about the news.
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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Alabama’s Insane New Abortion Law Gives Fetuses Lawyers and Puts Teenage Girls on Trial

Tattoo Parlors Have Become a Great Investment

Natasha Lyonne Is Coming to the Live Culture Gabfest. Are You?

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The Secret Service’s Big Problems Were Reported Last Year. Nobody Cared.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 2 2014 11:01 AM It Wasn’t a Secret A 2013 inspector general report detailed all of the Secret Service’s problems. Nobody cared.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 12:10 PM Women of America, Here Are the Cities Where You Can Find Marriageable Men
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 2 2014 11:07 AM Mapping 1890 Manhattan's Crazy-Quilt of Immigrant Neighborhoods
  Double X
Doublex
Oct. 2 2014 11:34 AM Alabama’s Insane New Abortion Law Putting teenage girls on trial may finally be too much for the Supreme Court.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 2 2014 12:04 PM The Audio Book Club Debates Gone Girl, the Novel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 2 2014 11:41 AM Dropbox Recruiting Video Features Puppets and Data Privacy
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 2 2014 9:49 AM In Medicine We Trust Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?