Winston Churchill? Copywriter for Budweiser Beer? George F. Tilton? Sam Rayburn? Joe Paterno? John Wooden? Mike Ditka? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of stirring words that are often attributed to the well-known statesman Winston Churchill:
Success is never final and failure never fatal. It’s courage that counts.
Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.
I have never seen a source for this saying, and I suspect Churchill never said it. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Churchill made this remark. The saying is listed in the comprehensive quotation collection “Churchill by Himself” in a special appendix called “Red Herrings: False Attributions”. 1
Richard Langworth, the editor of “Churchill by Himself”, has a website with a webpage indicating that the saying above has been misattributed. Commenting more generally about expressions that are being improperly ascribed to Churchill he stated: 2
These quotations are all over the Internet, none of them attributed, and just seem to multiply and get passed on, like the common cold.
QI hypothesizes that the saying above evolved from simpler partial statements during a multi-year process. A version closely matching the full expression appeared in the 1930s in an advertising campaign for Budweiser beer, a product of the Anheuser-Busch company. Based on current evidence, a copywriter for Budweiser probably synthesized the saying. Details are given further below.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.
In 1905 a volume of literary criticism titled “The Principles and Progress of English Poetry” by Charles M. Gayley and Clement C. Young was published, and it included an interesting precursor of the saying. Boldface has been added to some excerpts: 3
Comedy amuses, corrects, and heartens. It shows that the vanities of life are not final, and the failures not always fatal.
In 1920 a medical doctor named George Starr White published a volume of thoughts that included a variety of sayings and adages. A fragment of the full expression was presented as a freestanding epigram: 4 5
Success is never final.
In 1921 a philosophical essay titled “Finality” by the popular syndicated columnist George Matthew Adams was published in multiple newspapers. A partial version of the saying was included in the essay. Here is an excerpt: 6 7
Birth is simply a designation, as is death. Both are relatives, and both are important as in turn they rise a little to mark off their space in the one great endless expression which we call Time.
So that if you are wise, you will not worry. Your success is not final—nor is your failure.
You may always begin again. There is no finality!
Even decay is but an expression of life. The fallen flower, wilted and forgotten, excepting for the perfume which it sent to the four winds of the world, soon is known to mingle its ashes in the warmth of the earth—to rise again in new forms and new beauties.
Also in 1921 a volume in an encyclopedia called “The Standard Reference Work: For the Home, School and Library” was published. The entry for “Comedy” precisely reprinted the 1905 quotation given previously and credited the co-author Gayley; hence, the statement continued to circulate. 8
In 1938 an advertisement for Budweiser beer was printed in multiple newspapers. The text included an instance of the saying that closely matched the modern version. This is the earliest such match known to QI; hence, it is possible that the expression was constructed by a copywriter for an advertising series of the Anheuser-Busch brewing company. The ellipsis was in the original text: 9
Men with the spirit of youth pioneered our America…men with vision and sturdy confidence. They found contentment in the thrill of action, knowing that success was never final and failure never fatal. It was courage that counted. Isn’t opportunity in America today greater than it was in the days of our grateful forefathers? Good!
In 1939 an advertisement with the same illustration and nearly identical text was printed in the widely-circulated magazine LIFE. 10
In 1948 Forbes magazine printed an instance of the saying in its regular feature section “Thoughts on the Business of Life”. The words were credited to someone named George F. Tilton without a citation. This ascription has retained popularity: 11
Success is never final and Failure never fatal. It’s courage that counts.
—George F. Tilton.
In 1961 a tribute to Sam Rayburn, the powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives, was published in a North Carolina newspaper, and the article was later placed into the Congressional Record. The first part of the saying was employed by the newspaper: 12
He held to the belief that success is never final • • • and failure never fatal.
So he won his victories—was that the end?
So he lost some battles—was that the end?
By the 1960s the saying had been assigned to Winston Churchill. For example, in 1968 Joe Paterno, a prominent college football coach, delivered a speech at a banquet for high school athletes as reported in a Pennsylvania newspaper. Paterno used the adage, and the article ascribed the words to Churchill: 13
In closing, Paterno quoted a saying by Winston Churchill which he feels is the key to athletics and to life.
“Success is never final; failure is never fatal; the only thing that counts is courage.”
In 1971 a short version was included in the biographical work “Joe Paterno: Football My Way”, and once again Paterno credited Churchill: 14
“I always remember what Winston Churchill once said, ‘Success is never final, failure is never fatal.’ I think maybe that best explains my philosophy of football as well as life in general.”
The adage has been employed by other high-profile coaches. In 1972 basketball coach John Wooden published a memoir which included an epigraph for each chapter. Chapter 17 presented the saying with a footnote that credited Churchill: 15
Success is never final.
Failure is never fatal.
It’s courage that counts.*
In 1973 the popular syndicated columnist Earl Wilson mentioned a version of the first part of the saying, but he gave no attribution: 16
“Success is not permanent. The same is also true of failure.”
In 1990 the quotation collector Robert Byrne released the fourth book in his series of “637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”, and he included a variant of the first part of the saying credited to football coach Mike Ditka: 17
Success isn’t permanent, and failure isn’t fatal.
In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that the saying evolved over time, and the phrase about courage was appended to a preexisting adage. The earliest evidence of the full saying appeared in an advertisement for Budweiser beer in the 1930s. The linkage to Churchill appeared in the 1960s and has no substantive support.
Update History: On August 2, 2014 the 1971 citation was added.
- 2008, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, Edited by Richard Langworth, Appendix I: Red Herrings: False Attributions, Quote Page 579, PublicAffairs, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- Website: Richard M. Langworth, Article title: More “Quotations” Churchill Never Said, Article author: Richard M. Langworth, Date on website: June 19, 2009, Website description: “Richard M. Langworth: Churchill historian, automotive and travel writer”. (Accessed richardlangworth.com on September 3, 2013) link ↩
- 1905, The Principles and Progress of English Poetry by Charles Mills Gayley and Clement C. Young, Quote Page c (roman numeral), The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1920 Copyright, Think; Side Lights, What Others Say, Clinical Cases, Etc. by George Starr White, M.D., Quote Page 73, Phillips Printing Co., Los Angeles, California. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 245, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1921 April 9, Elkhart Truth, Finality, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Elkhart, Indiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1921 April 9, Trenton Evening Times, Finality, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1921 copyright, The Standard Reference Work: For the Home, School and Library, Edited by Harold Melvin Stanford, Volume 2, Entry: Comedy, Page not numbered, Standard Education Society, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1938 September 21, Trenton Evening Times, (Advertisement for Budweiser Beer from Anheuser-Busch), You can’t tell him there’s no fishin’, Quote Page 19, Column 7, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1939 March 13, LIFE, (Advertisement for Budweiser Beer from Anheuser-Busch), You can’t tell him there’s no fishin’, Quote Page 67, Time, Inc., New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1948 November 1, Forbes, Thoughts On the Business of Life, Quote Page 34, Column 3, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1962 January 18, Congressional Record – House, Proceedings and Debates of the 87th Congress, Second Session, Volume 108, Part 1, Quote Page 513, (Note in text: From the Gastonia (N.C.) Gazette, Nov. 16, 1961 “A Tribute to Sam Rayburn”), U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 1968 April 1, Altoona Mirror, Over 400 Hear Joe Paterno: BG Athletes Urged to ‘Think Big, Aim High’, Quote Page 26, Column 3, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1971, Joe Paterno: Football My Way by Mervin D. Hyman and Gordon S. White Jr., Quote Page 26, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1973, They Call Me Coach by John Wooden, as told to Jack Tobin, (Epigraph of Chapter 17), Quote Page 112, Bantam Books, New York. (Front matter states that an edition from Word Books was published December 1972) (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1973 January 9, Greensboro Record, Job Offers Draw Tears From Actor by Earl Wilson, (Syndicated column), Quote Page A-11, Column 3, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1990, The Fourth—and by Far the Most Recent—637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne, Quote Number 277, Page not numbered, (Quotations are numbered, but pages are not numbered), Atheneum, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩