A Fourth Note on the First CEO: The Postwar Provenance

A reader of my posts about the acronym CEO suggests I have a look at the organizational chart for the Manhattan Project to gain a better appreciation for the “American and military” provenance of the term. “I believe during a period of intense collaboration between the military and private sector after WWII,” he writes, “it somehow permeated to corporate use.”

I have wondered about that “somehow,” and wondered, too, if I could be a little more specific about the course this permeation took. Is the acronym CEO — and the idea of the CEO — an outgrowth of the military industrial complex? Does the rise of the CEO to a position of cultural celebrity in the 1970s and 1980s tell us something (we don’t already know) about how the postwar environment shaped American ideas of command, power and leadership, in the private sector and in the public sector?

These are questions worth asking, I think, though I’m not sure the organizational chart for the Manhattan Project is the best place to start. Or at least that chart doesn’t include the term “CEO.” There is an “OCE” — an Office of the Chief of Engineers; the role of “Executive Officer” was assigned to J.B. Lampert. That title was also used in the appointment of Leslie R. Groves (of Now It Can Be Told fame), who in the org chart has the title of Commanding General.

The larger point here still merits consideration: just follow the careers of the engineers and military commanders identified in the Manhattan Project org chart, consider the military industrial development of the 1950s and the American business environment in which COs and XOs and members of the OCE worked closely with the private sector, and in many cases left the military to join the private sector: it’s easy to see how a new vocabulary of command might have emerged during that period, and eventually found its way into ordinary usage.

Still, I want specifics and cases I can point to. To that end, I’ve written to the company historian at General Electric, to ask whether the term CEO was in general use before the era of Jack Welch (who for a variety of reasons — not least for his cultural celebrity — probably deserves the title “The First CEO”). I’m looking for some examples of usage from the days of Ralph J. Cordiner (Chief Executive Officer from 1950-1963), Fred J. Borch (Chief Executive Officer 1963-1972) or Reginald H. Jones, who served from 1972-1981.

ReaganProgressGE seems like an obvious place to start looking. The company that brought us both Jack Welch and Ronald Reagan was, during the war and then in the postwar period, at the very center of military-industrial development; and big American companies like General Electric were never just manufacturing products — or even “progress,” which Reagan used to tout on TV as GE’s “most important product.” They were also designing models of power that persist to this day.

4 thoughts on “A Fourth Note on the First CEO: The Postwar Provenance

  1. Hank Bromley

    I think you’ll be interested in the research paper posted at http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/51340/576.pdf (“Title Wave: The Diffusion of the CEO Title throughout the US Corporate Network,” by David W. Allison and Blyden B. Potts).

    As part of their investigation into the mechanisms by which corporate practices spread among organizations, the authors searched rather exhaustively to determine when each of the largest U.S. companies began using the term “CEO.” They assert that among the 200 largest industrial companies, “the earliest adopter, Container Corp., first had a CEO in 1947,” and that by 1975, all but one of those 200 firms had a CEO.


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Many thanks for this suggestion. I’ve downloaded the paper and plan to read it today. While Allison and Potts don’t distinguish (in their review of the literary evidence) between the term “Chief Executive Officer” and “CEO” — a distinction I consider important — their suggestion that the creation of the CEO role was a “fad” that swept American business in the postwar period is something I am trying to understand. More after I read; for now, thanks!


  2. Pingback: A Fifth Note on the First CEO: The Postwar Fad | lvgaldieri

  3. Pingback: The First CEO: A 1966 Illustration | lvgaldieri

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