Otto von Bismarck? Cynical Broker? Hy Sheridan? Claud Cockburn? Edward Cheyfitz? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Cynicism regarding official edicts is not a new phenomenon. Reportedly, the powerful German leader Otto von Bismarck once said:
Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied.
Yet, these words have also been attributed to more recent political figures such as the journalist Claud Cockburn and the Washington attorney Edward Cheyfitz. Would you please help determine the proper ascription?
Quote Investigator: This sharp remark which borders on paradox can be expressed in many ways; hence, it has been difficult to trace. The earliest evidence located by QI was published in “The Tri-Weekly Gleaner” of Kingston, Jamaica in 1897. A writer suggested that pronouncements from the government in the Transvaal region of Africa were unreliable. The adage about official denials was credited to a “cautious observer”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
The fact that the Government have once more pledged themselves to execute reforms is taken as quite sufficient reason for not believing in them. A cautious observer declared: “I never accept anything about the Government until it has been officially denied; then I know it is true.”
In 1900 “The Times” newspaper of London printed a letter from a correspondent with the moniker “Behind the Scenes” who presented the witticism as an axiom and provided no attribution. 2 The same letter was reprinted in “The St. James Gazette” of London: 3
It is an axiom of practical politics never to believe anything until it has been officially denied.
Otto von Bismarck died in 1898, and an instance of the saying was attributed to him by 1911. Claud Cockburn included a version in his 1956 memoir, but he was relaying an unattributed remark. In 1958 a note in the “Reader’s Digest” cited “Look” magazine to credit Edward Cheyfitz. These citations were rather late, and the current evidence favors an anonymous origin.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1897 August 31, The Tri-Weekly Gleaner (Kingston Gleaner), The Land of Gold: Affairs in the Transvaal, Quote Page 7, Column 7, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1900 December 10, The Times, Mr. Kruger and France, (Letter dated December 9 to the editor from “Behind the Scenes”), Quote Page 10, Column 6, London, England. (The Times UK Database from Gale) ↩
- 1900 December 10, The St. James Gazette, France and Mr. Kruger, Quote Page 7, Column 2, London, England. (NewspaperArchive) ↩