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.
- 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) ↩