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."

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Many journalists give former Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham credit for being the first to describe journalism as "the first rough draft of history."

In "many," I include myself. In late 2009 and early 2006, I attributed the remark to Graham and implied that he was the first to say or write it.

But others have said or written similar things. Former Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee gave credit to Graham in an interview with American Heritage in 1982. The Newseum, the Washington Post (1997 and 2005), the Encyclopedia of American Journalism, Jon Meacham in Newsweek (2009 and 2010), David Halberstam in The Powers That Be, and Kit Rachlis in Los Angeles magazine—to give just a few examples—all attribute it to Graham.

Even the New York Timesattributed the comment to Graham in 2007. But that piece wasn't written by a Times reporter. It was me again, in a review of Robert D. Novak's memoir.

Katharine Graham, Philip Graham's widow, sources the immortal words to him in her 1997 autobiography Personal History. She sets the scene: The year was 1963, the location was London, and Phil Graham's audience was Newsweek's overseas correspondents. Graham doesn't explicitly state that her husband was the first to unspool the phrase, but, like me, she implies it, writing accurately that the words are "quoted to this day."

She reproduces three paragraphs from Phil Graham's speech, the last paragraph being:

So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand. … [Ellipsis in Katharine Graham's original.]

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But my belief that Graham had coined the phrase was broken this weekend. I was pruning my Gmail inbox and came across a November 2009 e-mail from Barry Popik I had never read before. In it, he had traced the phrase to an earlier source—a 1943 book review in the New Republic. In the review, journalist Alan Barth wrote, "News is only the first rough draft of history."

Popik's finding encouraged me to load a few databases of my own, leading to my discovery that Philip Graham used the phrase prior to 1963. On March 8, 1953, he addressed the American Society for Public Administration on the subject of the press. In his remarks—reprinted in the spring 1953 edition of Public Administration Review(paid)—he states:

The inescapable hurry of the press inevitably means a certain degree of superficiality. It is neither within our power nor our province to be ultimately profound. We write 365 days a year the first rough draft of history, and that is a very great task.

I consulted with Fred R. Shapiro, the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, in which educator-author Douglass Cater is credited with this tamer version of the phrase: "The reporter [is] one who each twenty-four hours dictates a first draft of history." Shapiro alerted me to a use of the full phrase earlier than the Graham speech in the June 13, 1948, Washington Post. On a full page, Publisher Philip L. Graham wrote to promise Post readers the newspaper's "continued independence." Beneath his promise was a nonbylined article titled "Platform of the Washington Post." In it, this sentence appears:

News is a first rough-draft of history.

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