Harry Truman? A. B. Warfield? Spencer Z. Hilliard? Clifford M. Alexander? Lester C. Hunt? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The phrase “pass the buck” refers to shifting responsibility from one person to another. U.S. President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk in the White House that famously stated:
The Buck Stops Here
Thus, Truman expressed a willingness to assume the ultimate responsibility for the executive decisions made during his administration. Do you know who coined this colorful and forthright statement?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a journal titled “Hospital Management” in October 1939. A meeting of managers was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey and Brigadier General A. B. Warfield spoke about processing laundry which was a large logistical task within the military. The following passage described a sign on Warfield’s desk. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Gen. Warfield spoke on “Co-operation,” emphasizing the value of doing the job without seeking to escape responsibility by referring to a motto he keeps on his desk—“The buck stops here.” He described the extensive system of laundries operated by the Army Quartermaster Department at Army posts, producing a profit for the department, as required by law.
Currently, Warfield is the leading candidate for crafter of this expression. Other individuals such as Spencer Z. Hilliard and Harry Truman also employed this saying, but citations suggest that the phrase was already in circulation.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In April 1942 “The Wisconsin State Journal” published an article about contractors laying railroad tracks and building facilities for the military. A sign with the phrase was seen in the office of a captain in Baraboo, Wisconsin: 2
“Time is Short, Let Us Work,” say the signs at army headquarters at Baraboo, where Capt. Spencer Z. Hilliard adjutant, issues the press passes. Prize sign, however, also above his desk, is—“The buck stops here.”
In October 1942 the “Reno Evening Gazette” of Reno, Nevada printed a picture of a sign displaying the motto “The Buck Stops Here” that was sitting atop a desk. The photo caption identified the man in the chair behind the desk as follows: 3
Photo Title: The Buck Stops Here
Caption Information: Col. A. B. Warfield (above), commandant of the Lathrop Holding and Reconsignment depot at Stockton, with the retired rank of brigadier general, is the ranking officer in the Stockton area
In November 1943 an Associated Press article profiled a captain who displayed the motto on his desk: 4:
Capt. Clifford M. Alexander has real hate for both buck passing and paper work.
Sitting behind a desk at headquarters of the Fourth Service Command on which there is a sign proclaiming, “the buck stops here,” the captain recalled the building of a prisoner-of-war camp from kitchen to barracks in a single day.
In June 1944 a “Wisconsin State Journal” reporter referred to a sign emblazoned with the saying. This citation complemented the earlier citation from April 1942: 5
We saw an adjutant in the army once who had a sign above his desk, “The buck stops here.” It probably was correct, and all the unwanted tasks from higher up that could be passed on eventually reached him.
In September 1945 a filler item with a dateline location of Cheyenne, Wyoming described a sign on the governor’s desk: 6
NO BUCK PASSER
Gov. Lester C. Hunt has a neatly lettered sign on his desk reading: “The Buck Stops Here.” It’s presumed to mean the governor dislikes buck-passing.
In January 1946 a reporter for the International News Service (INS) described some of the items Harry Truman kept on his desk in the White House: 7
Truman’s big, glass-topped mahogany desk is a model of neatness, compared to that of Roosevelt’s bedecked confusion.
Truman likes gadgets, some of which find temporary space on his desk before being condemned to a wall closet. He has one neatly lettered desk sign reading, “The Buck Stops Here.” Another says, with some meaning, “I’m From Missouri.” An intricate one which can be adjusted three ways reads “No,” or “Yes” or “Scram.”
In December 1946 “The Washington Post” discussed the process of deliberation and choice in the White House. A special counsel to the President stated emphatically that Truman made the decisions. The reporter elaborated on the point: 8
If there should be any argument on this point, Mr. Truman has a desk gadget that ought to settle it. It is a little thing on which is printed four words—“The Buck Stops Here.” Others may pass the buck, but by the time it reaches the President’s desk—well, that is the terminal point. There just isn’t any place else for it to go.
In 1979 a pun based on the saying was printed in the “Indiana Evening Gazette” of Indiana, Pennsylvania: 9
If the buck stops here, how come we never have any money?
In conclusion, a sign stating “The Buck Stops Here” was placed atop President Harry Truman’s desk in the White House by 1946 as reported in newspapers. Truman also mentioned the saying in his speeches, but its provenance can be traced further back in time.
Currently, evidence suggests that A. B. Warfield was the first to popularize the saying by placing a sign with the motto on his desk by October 1939, and he may have coined it. The popular expression was adopted by others such as Spencer Z. Hilliard, Clifford M. Alexander, Lester C. Hunt, and Truman.
Image Notes: Harry Truman poses for a photograph at the recreation of the Truman Oval Office at the Truman Library in 1959. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Unrestricted use from the Truman Library.
(Great thanks to Charles Doyle who accessed the important October 1939 citation. Also thanks to previous researchers and the American Dialect Society mailing list discussants on this topic.)
- 1939 October, Hospital Management, Volume 48, Number 4, Need for Education Stressed at Meeting of Laundry Managers, Start Page 54, Quote Page 55, Column 1, Published by G. D. Crain, Illinois, (WorldCat lists Clissold Publishing Company) (Verified with scans thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system) (The name “Warfield” occurred multiple times in the text; the specific occurrence in the excerpt was misspelled “Warfied” in the original text) ↩
- 1942 April 26, The Wisconsin State Journal, Builders Beating Powder Works Contract Dates, Start Page 1, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1942 October 1, Reno Evening Gazette, (Photo caption), Quote Page 26 (Unnumbered), Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1943 November 25, Evening Star, Hater of Buck Passing And Paper Work Built Army Camp in Day (Associated Press), Quote Page B2, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1944 June 18, Wisconsin State Journal, Censorship Hits Truax Library, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1945 September 19, Wisconsin State Journal, No Buck Passer (U.P news service), Quote Page 15, Column 1, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1946 January 23, Buffalo Courier-Express, Truman Alters White House’s Inner Circle by Bob Considine (International News Service), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1946 December 15, The Washington Post, New ‘Ghost’ Says Truman Rules Roost by Edward T. Folliard (Post Reporter), Quote Page B1, Column 6, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1979 January 27, Indiana Evening Gazette, Teddy, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Indiana, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩