Samuel Goldwyn? Jerry Wald? Jed Harris? Louis Sobol? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Making a weighty decision is difficult because one must be willing to forgo alternative choices and possibilities. The following equivocal statement comical illustrates this psychological tension:
I can give you a definite maybe.
The words above have been attributed to the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn who made a large number of multi-million dollar business decisions. Would you please explore this phrase?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI was printed in a column of the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York in November 1933. The quip was relayed to the columnist by Jerry Wald who was a screenwriter and producer; Wald ascribed the remark to another unnamed Hollywood producer: 1
From Jerry Wald, away out in Hollywood, comes the gag about the producer who was arguing with an actor about a contract. The actor insisted the producer come to a definite decision, one way or the other.
“What are you complaining about?” screamed the producer. “I have given you a definite decision…didn’t I give you a definite maybe?”
In December 1933 a very similar anecdote was printed in a newspaper in Amsterdam, New York with an acknowledgement to the periodical “Hollywood Times”: 2
To a movie actor who insisted on a definite decision the film producer roared: “What are you complaining about? I have given you a definite decision–didn’t I give you a definite ‘Maybe?'” — Hollywood Times.
By 1935 the expression was being attributed to the director and producer Jed Harris. Columnist Louis Sobol was credited in 1939; columnist Walter Winchell used the phrase in 1940; and Samuel Goldwyn was also credited in 1940.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.