W. Joseph Campbell

The murky derivation of ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’

In 1897, Media myths, New York Times, Year studies on February 11, 2010 at 8:39 am

Prominent and famous though it is, the derivation of “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” the New York Times’ famous motto, is shrouded in a bit of media myth.

The version the Times advanced at its centenary in 1951, in a house newsletter called Times Talk, described the motto as “a hybrid.” Times Talk said Adolph Ochs, who acquired the then-beleaguered Times in 1896, borrowed a key portion of the slogan from the Philadelphia Times.

The Times Talk account was cited by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones in their prodigious study, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times.

Supposedly, Ochs borrowed “All the News,” the motto of the Philadelphia Times, appended “That’s Fit to Print,” and thus concocted the most famous seven-word phrase in American journalism.

The account, however, is incorrect.

The Philadelphia Times never used “All the News” as its motto during the summer and fall of 1896, when Ochs acquired control of the Times and began using “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as a marketing and advertising slogan.

A thorough review of issues of the Philadelphia Times published in the summer and fall of 1896 showed that the newspaper carried a number of promotional statements, none of which was particularly pithy, or memorable.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the nearest approximation to “All the News” was this rambling assertion, which appeared a few times beneath the front page nameplate of the Philadelphia Times:

“If You Want All the News of Every Description Attractively Presented You Will Read the Times.”

That clunky phrase appeared in the Philadelphia Times on August 4, 11, and 17, 1896. Ochs, according to Tifft and Jones, was installed as the New York Times publisher on August 18, 1896.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” did not makes its début until early October 1896, spelled out in a row of red lights on an advertising sign above New York’s Madison Square.

Later that month, “All The News That’s Fit to Print” appeared in New York Times advertisements published in the trade journal Fourth Estate. By the end of October 1896, the phrase had taken a place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.

And 113 years ago yesterday, on February 10, 1897, the Times moved the phrase without notice or fanfare to the upper left corner, the left “ear,” of its front page—a place of prominence that it has occupied ever since.

What prompted the motto’s move to the front page is not entirely clear. But the intent seems undeniable: To offer a rebuke to the bold, self-promoting yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

But it appears that “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was Ochs’ creation, as Harrison E. Salisbury maintained in Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times, an impressive insider’s study of the Times. (Salisbury cited as his source an Ochs manuscript in the Times archives.)

By the way, I quote Salisbury’s Without Fear or Favor in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths.

Without Fear or Favor was a useful source in the chapter in Getting It Wrong that addresses the myth surrounding the Times’ reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.

WJC

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