Most Dangerous Phrase: We’ve Always Done It That Way

Grace Murray Hopper? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Grace Murray Hopper was a pioneering computer scientist whose work was central to the development of COBOL, one of the foundational high-level programming languages. She worked in a very fast moving technological domain where simply attempting to repeat previously successful strategies was sometimes disastrous. I am trying to determine if she crafted the following astute remark:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the periodical “Computerworld” in 1976. An article about new laws in the U.S. concerning data processing (DP) and privacy included an interview with Grace Murray Hopper who employed an instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

On the future of data processing, Hopper said the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order

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  1. 1976 January 26, Computerworld, Volume 10, Number 4, Privacy Laws May Usher In ‘Defensive DP’: Hopper by Esther Surden (Computerworld Staff), Quote Page 9, Column 3, Computerworld, Inc., Newton, Massachusetts, Now published by IDG Enterprise. (Google Books Full View) link