On the trail of the question, Who first said (or wrote) that journalism is the "first rough draft of…

Media criticism.
Aug. 30 2010 8:04 PM

Who Said It First?

Journalism is the "first rough draft of history."

(Continued from Page 1)

Did Graham write the sentence? Or did one of the Post's editorial writers? Their pictures, along with those of Graham and other Post executives and managers, ring the page. It's entirely likely that the Post "platform" was team-written by the editorial board, as many editorials are.

The lesser version of Graham's phrase (sans the word rough) appears almost routinely on Post editorial pages in the 1940s, both before Graham became publisher in 1946 and after. Shapiro points me to the paper's Oct. 16, 1944, editorial page, in which an unsigned "Editor's Note" states, "Newspapers, after all, are the first drafts of history, or pretend they are." A Dec. 2, 1948, editorial about the death of the Washington Star's Frank B. Noyes refers to "the first draft of history which newspapers profess to furnish." And a May 4, 1949, editorial about Pulitzer Prize winners asserts, "The real function of newspapers is to provide the kind of first draft of history." (In his research, Popik has trapped an even earlier publication of "first draft of history.")

These passages indicate that the notion of journalism as a "first history" had real velocity in 1940s Washington.

Who gave it its boost? Maybe it was Alan Barth, who wrote the New Republicarticle cited above and was a Washington Post editorial writer from 1943 to 1972. (His picture appears on the 1948 "Platform of the Washington Post" page.) My guess is that Barth introduced his fellow editorialists to the concept and Graham adopted it for insertion in his speeches. Such insertion would be totally legit, by the way. I am in no way implying that adoption of a five-word phrase would constitute plagiarism.

Washington Post Co. Chairman and CEO Donald Graham—son of Philip and Katharine—says he was unaware of any earlier-than-1963 uses of the phrase, and adds, "I am pretty sure Katharine Graham was, too."

What makes "first rough draft of history" so tuneful, at least to the ears of journalists? Well, it flatters them. Journalists hope that one day a historian will uncover their dusty work and celebrate their genius. But that almost never happens. Historians tend to view journalism as unreliable and tend to be dismissive of our work. They'd rather work from primary sources—official documents, photographs, interviews, and the like—rather than from our clips.

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But that's only part of the phrase's appeal. Its artful redundancy makes it resonate. First, rough, and draft all have separate and distinct meanings, yet they all point to a morning greenness, a raw beginning where truth originates. Rhetoricians call the stacking of several synonyms in a row "synonymia," and one claims that the trick "adds emotional force or intellectual clarity" to writing.

Although "first rough draft of history" isn't a perfect example of synonymia, it reaches me both emotionally and intellectually. Grouped together as they are in Graham's famous sentence, these single-syllable words fall like hammer blows driving a nail. The formulation is so perfect, I'll bet that 100 other writers drafted it before Alan Barth.

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To the databases! Can you can find an earlier mention of "first rough draft of history"? Send your discoveries to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Follow my personal history on my Twitter feed. Thanks to Popik, Shapiro, and Charles Paul Freund for their help. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word rough in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.