For some time now, I have been wondering when and how the acronym “CEO” came into general use. This isn’t just a matter of idle etymological interest. CEO is one of those rare acronyms – like scuba, radar, and snafu – that have become words. And in the course of becoming a word, CEO has redefined our world.
I was intrigued by the entry in Webster’s Dictionary that seemed to pinpoint the date: 1975. Only Webster’s didn’t provide a citation or attestation. So I wrote to the publisher at the beginning of March to ask where this first CEO might be found. A mere two weeks later, a reply came from Joanne M. Despres, Etymology Editor at Merriam-Webster. She informed me that Webster’s researchers had found that first illustration of CEO in a British publication, Neville Osmond’s Handbook for Managers, volume 2 (London, 1975).
But it turns out they had not dug deep enough: “In reviewing the standard sources we use to research dates,” Despres wrote, “I noticed that the Oxford English Dictionary now reports pre-1975 evidence of the word’s existence.” The 2011 online edition of the OED reaches back across the Atlantic, to America, and a little further back in time, a few years earlier, to the March-April 1972 issue of the Harvard Business Review: there we discover “a technician in his early forties who joined the company three years ago as president but not CEO.” (In light of this new evidence, Despres has requested that Webster’s “date for CEO be revised at the first opportunity.”)
I hoped to find but I didn’t find an even earlier illustration yesterday, when I went to the New York Public Library to track down Despres’ OED reference and review past editions of the Harvard Business Review on microfilm. I still have a number of leads to follow. But in the course of my reading it became tolerably clear that someone at the Harvard Business Review made an editorial decision in late 1971 or early 1972 to start using – or allowing the use of — the acronym CEO. This was right around the time Ralph F. Lewis was named editor of the Review (in 1971). Lewis instituted a number of important changes at the Review; this fateful concession to shorthand may have been one of the more minor changes he made, but it had immediate consequences.
Once the term is allowed into the Review, it begins to populate the pages of the journal. There is no turning back. Along with the instance cited by the OED editors, there are a number of early illustrations of CEO in the Review of 1972. This one appears in Myles L. Mace’s article on “The President and the Board of Directors”: “I use the title ‘president’ to mean the chief executive officer, recognizing that in some corporations the CEO may have the title ‘chairman of the board.’” (Mace’s earlier articles for the Review, in 1965 and 1966, use “chief operating executive,” “chief executive,” and “president,” but not CEO. His Directors: Myth and Reality, published in 1971, adheres to the same long form usage.) We find the newfangled acronym, again, in “Conflict at the Summit: A Deadly Game” by Alonzo McDonald. Here, McDonald takes some care in introducing it:
Leaders are still consumed with the problem of how to organize the summit. Inevitably, it is the first topic that a newly appointed chief executive officer (CEO) wants to discuss with his most trusted counselors and confidants.
And then he can use it freely:
Many CEOs who sincerely see themselves in the role of moral leaders are perceived by others as confirmed and passionate addicts of power.
The point is not that the Harvard Business Review foisted the term CEO on us. It had most likely been in use, in the MBA classroom and in the corporate boardroom, for some time. The Review certainly helped disseminate the acronym; and it’s worth remembering that readers, subscribers and contributors were then, as now, influential, powerful and connected to other influential and powerful people. McDonald, for instance, would be named Managing Director at McKinsey in 1973. Lewis came to the Review from accounting firm Arthur Young and was “director of several prominent corporations”; at the time of his death in 1979, he sat on the boards of Houghton Mifflin, Twentieth- Century Film Corporation, and Paine, Webber, among others. Mace was one of the leading lights of Harvard Business School and served, as well, on a number of boards.
Mace’s work on the role of directors (in Myth and Reality) was especially influential and timely. There was then, as now, an urgent need for new bearings – a new orientation; and the sense that it is time to dispense with institutionalized illusions and find new direction goes well beyond issues of corporate governance. New, big, disturbing questions about the role of business in society, the counter-culture and the emerging global economic order are coming to a head. It’s not without significance that it’s at this moment – at the dawn of late twentieth-century neoliberalism — that CEO makes its first appearance.
It is only a matter of a decade or so before the word is regularly in the newspapers, on the TV, and on everyone’s lips, and the CEO has become what he is today: a cultural icon, celebrated and hated, creator and destroyer, a symbol of American success or the villain behind America’s current woes.
UPDATE: For a slightly earlier (1970) illustration of the acronym and some further discussion, see this post.