In a comment on one of my posts about the rise of the acronym “CEO,” a reader named Hugo reports some early Australian illustrations. I thought I’d lift Hugo’s notes from the comments and share them here, because the examples he’s found all pre-date the 1970 illustration of the acronym from the Harvard Business Review, which up until now I had taken to be the earliest. One dates back to 1914.
Time, again, to notify the dictionaries.
I found some earlier 1968 and 1950 examples in Australian newspapers, where chief executive officers were found at hospitals. I also found a 1917 [sic, but the source is from 1914] from a story about a town hall.
The Canberra Times, 27 July 1968, page 22:
Applications are invited for the above positions at the Hillston District Hospital.
Applications and enquiries to the undersigned or Matron Fairchild, Box 1, PO, Hillson, NSW, 2675.
R. I. Cross,
The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1950, page 30:
PARRAMATTA DISTRICT HOSPITAL.
Wanted. Experienced Sister to take
charge of the Out Patient Department
at this hospital.
N. B. FILBY,
Secretary and C.E.O.
Independent, 7 November 1914, page 3:
BEHIND THE SCENES
BY A TOWN HALL FLY
Of course I am the chief executive officer but I only execute by instructions.
“What a pity,” said the M.M., the C.E.O.
“Not at all, my dear young lady.” the C.E.O.’s voice was tear laden too.
Also uses G.H.U. a few times for Great High Understrapper.
I don’t think these earlier Australian instances should invalidate what I’ve said previously about the widespread use of the acronym CEO in the 1970s and 1980s. Those observations concern the use of “CEO” as an important marker of corporate power, social status and cultural celebrity in America, from roughly 1970-2010.
Still, it’s interesting to consider these early examples. The first two are abbreviations used in newspaper advertisements (maybe just to save money) for positions at hospitals, where the CEOs are clearly in charge of correspondence if not of hiring. Nothing too glamorous. [Update: And one reader, in a comment on this post, suggests that CEO in this context may mean “Catholic Education Officer,” adding that at this time in Australia, “nurses and religious orders go together.”]
The illustration from 1914 offers a satirical, behind-the-scenes account of a municipal office thrown into bureaucratic confusion by a report of 24 cows eating all the flowers and shrubs in the park. Underlings and citizens address the Chief Executive Officer by such honorifics as “Your Chief Executiveness” and “Most Magnificent” and, then, “CEO.” It is an empty title; he seems unable to execute anything at all: “Of course I am the chief executive officer,” he insists, “but I only execute by instructions.” When he finally understands the gravity of the situation, he acts: “I will tell somebody to tell somebody else to tell the inspector as soon as he comes in the morning at nine. I’m sure 24 cows won’t eat all the shrubs in that time.” He is very much the Chief, very much an Officer, but not much when it comes to Execution.