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.]
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.
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.
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.
To the databases! Can you can find an earlier mention of “first rough draft of history”? Send your discoveries to email@example.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.)
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