Quote Origin: The Past Is History. The Future Is a Mystery. Today Is a Gift. That’s Why It’s Called the Present

Eleanor Roosevelt? Barbara De Angelis? Joan Rivers? Bill Keane? Emily Dickinson? Liz Curtis Higgs? Babatunde Olatunji? Susan Barkdoll? Nicholas L. Santowassa? Abigail Van Buren? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: A rhyming series of statements highlight the uncertainty of the future and the desirability of appreciating the present. Here are two versions:

(1) The past is history. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.

(2) Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.

This saying has been attributed to social activist Eleanor Roosevelt, relationship counselor Barbara De Angelis, comedian Joan Rivers, cartoonist Bill Keane, and others. I have been unable to find solid citations. Would you please help?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a speech delivered at a graduation ceremony in June 1993 at Rutgers Preparatory School in New Jersey. The speaker was a member of the Board of Trustees, but he credited an unnamed journalist. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

Quoting a former journalist, he said, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift, and that is why it’s called the present.”

QI has found no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to Eleanor Roosevelt who died in 1962. The earliest attribution to Roosevelt located by QI appeared in 1999.

QI believes that this statement evolved over time. The segment containing the rhyming words “history” and “mystery” evolved separately from the segment with wordplay based on “gift” and “present”. The two segments were subsequently combined. The creator remains anonymous.

Additional details and citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.

Image Notes: An hourglass together with footprints on the beach from Immo Wegmann at Unsplash.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Laurence Horn whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Horn heard an instance spoken by ESPN host Tony Reali. Thanks also to Barry Popik for his pioneering research on this topic. He located the August 1993 citation with wordplay, the August 1994 “Family Circus” citation, and other valuable citations.

[1] 1993 June 14, The Central New Jersey Home News, Rutgers Prep graduates 55 by Leo Reisberg (Home News staff writer) (Continuation title: Goals), Start Page B1, Quote Page B2, Column 4, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)