University of Oxford? Theresa Russell? Edna Worthley Underwood? Anonymous?
Secret: You may tell it to only one person at a time.
Would you please explore the provenance of this quip?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in multiple U.S. newspapers in 1905. The joke was grouped together with several other humorous definitions, and no attribution was given. Here is a sampling of four items. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1905 June 13, The Times-Democrat, Silhouettes: Definitions, Quote Page 6, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana, (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
Eternity: Two hours of waiting in a dentist’s office.
Heathen: Anyone who does not profess the religion you don’t profess.
Secrecy: The art of telling a thing to only one person at a time.
Error: The mistaken act of another.
The text above was printed in “The Times-Democrat” of New Orleans, Louisiana. The same definitions appeared in “The Lexington Herald” of Lexington, Kentucky,[ref] 1905 July 09, The Lexington Herald, Definitions (Acknowledgment: New Orleans Times Democrat), Quote Page 8, Column 4, Lexington, Kentucky.(GenealogyBank) [/ref] “The Sunday Gazette and Telegraph” of Colorado Springs, Colorado,[ref] 1905 July 23, The Sunday Gazette and Telegraph (Gazette-Telegraph), Definitions (Acknowledgment: New Orleans Times Democrat), page 21, Column 5, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (GenealogyBank) [/ref] and other newspapers.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1907 a version of the jest occurred in a short story by Theresa Russell in the magazine “Out West” of Los Angeles, California:[ref] 1907 January, Out West, Volume 26, Number 1, Mittens in His Arizona Tent by Theresa Russell, Quote Page 71, Out West Magazine Co., Los Angeles, California. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]
“Can you keep a secret, Mittie?” she inquired. But she didn’t hand anything out to me, and I asked Spottie afterwards what she meant by a secret.
“Why,” he said, “it isn’t anything; only you have to be careful to tell it to just one person at a time.”
In 1913 “The Inter Ocean” of Chicago, Illinois printed a miscellaneous collection of “Irrelevancies”. Here is a sampling of three. One barb was aimed at women:[ref] 1913 January 29, The Inter Ocean, Irrelevancies, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
Secrecy with women consists in telling a thing to only one person at a time.
The emptiest man in the world is the one who is full of himself.
If you haven’t anything to say, don’t say it!
In 1915 the article from “The Inter Ocean” traveled across the Atlantic and was reprinted in “The Clifton and Redland Free Press” of Bristol, England. The article appeared in a section called “American Humour”.[ref] 1915 April 23, The Clifton and Redland Free Press, American Humour: Irrelevancies, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]
In 1918 the novel “The Whirlwind” by Edna Worthley Underwood included a different but thematically related joke:[ref] 1918 Copyright, The Whirlwind by Edna Worthley Underwood, Chapter VIII: The Night of the Ball, Quote Page 180, Small, Maynard and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]
“Very likely it is known. But I have tried to keep it secret.”
“But what secret was ever kept at court? ” questioned Orlov, insolently.
“The Grand Duke may know it, Nicholas Murievich. Mafra Savischna may have told him.”
“If the Grand Duke knows it, Murievich, other people know it. His way of keeping a secret is to give it over to the keeping of his friends.“
In 1925 a compact version of the quip appeared in a Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania newspaper:[ref] 1925 May 26, Mount Carmel News, Pollyanna Colyum, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
A secret is that which you tell one person at a time.
In 1927 the following variant appeared in several newspapers:[ref] 1927 March 2, The St. Joseph News-Press, That Way Only, Quote Page 11, Column 1, St. Joseph, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
“Can your wife keep a secret?”
“According to her idea of secrecy, which is telling a thing to only one person at a time.“–Boston Transcript.
In 1936 gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky printed a group of definitions tailored to Hollywood which included the following:[ref] 1936 September 26, The Augusta Chronicle, Hollywood by Sidney Skolsky, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]
Agent—Taxation without representation
Flattery—Telling a person what you really don’t think.
Secret—Something to be told to only one person at a time.
In 1946 columnist Trixie Teen offered the following commentary:[ref] 1946 January 19, The Oregonian, Tricks for Teens, Quote Page 10, Column 6, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]
Trixie Teen Says—As soon as you tell a secret, it’s no longer a secret. To some people a secret is something they tell only one person at a time. To others, it’s either not worth keeping or it’s too good to keep.
The quip continued to circulate in 1958 when it was reprinted in “Boys’ Life” magazine:[ref] 1958 March, Boys’ Life, Think and Grin, Quote Page 78, Boy Scouts of America, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Google Books Full View) [/ref]
Daffynishion: Secret — something you only tell one person at a time.—Tommy Larson, Baldwin, L.I., N.Y.
According to the “Encarta Book of Quotations” the following was spoken by English civil servant Oliver Franks in 1977:[ref] 2000, Encarta Book of Quotations, Edited by Bill Swainson, Entry: Oliver Franks, Quote Page 350, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
It is a secret in the Oxford sense: you may tell it to only one person at a time.
Sunday Telegraph, London (January 30, 1977)
In conclusion, this anonymous joke entered circulation by 1905. It can be expressed in many ways which makes it difficult to trace. The quip was linked to the University of Oxford by 1977.
Image Notes: Red stamp of secrecy from TheDigitalArtist at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Nigel Rees and Stephen Goranson whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The joke was discussed in “The ‘Quote…Unquote’ Newsletter” of Nigel Rees in October 2011, January 2012, and April 2012. Tony Jay pointed to the “Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations” entry which gave the 1977 citation. Thanks also to ADS discussant Dan Goncharoff.)