The Grammarphobia Blog

Breaking news

Q: Why do TV networks label every piece of reporting as “breaking news”? To me, this connotes something out of the ordinary, something urgent. Everything else is just “news.” Don’t you think?

A. We don’t watch much TV, so we’ll have to take your word for this flood of “breaking news.”

But as old newspaper hands, we use “breaking news” to mean news that’s hot off the press—or the TV or the iPhone.

In other words, news so hot that you have to stop the presses or break into regularly scheduled programming to get it out to your audience.

But news wasn’t necessarily hot when it was broken back in the 19th century.

To “break news” then was simply to make something known, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation for this usage in the OED is from Up the Rhine (1840), by the British humorist Thomas Hood: “Now, however, I have some news to break.”

A search of the America’s Historical Newspapers database reveals many 19th-century examples of the usage, including at least one that would indeed meet your criteria.

In a letter published in the Feb. 7, 1836, issue of the Rhode-Island Republic, an American writes to “break the news” to his family that he is about to be executed in Mexico.

The OED doesn’t have an entry for “breaking news,” but it does have one for “newsbreak,” which we suspect is the source of the noun phrase you’re asking about.

The dictionary defines “newsbreak” as “orig. U.S. a newsworthy item; spec. a story that has just broken, a newsflash.”

The first OED citation for the usage is from a Nov. 18, 1936, letter by Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind: “They all look to me for news-breaks on everything connected with my business.”

Getting back to the expression “breaking news,” we think it should be used to introduce important news, especially news in the making, not to pump up the ratings of a tired newscast.

But as we said, we don’t watch much TV. If we did, we’d hope the talking heads would give us a break.

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