The Grammarphobia Blog

Birth of the conspiracy theory

Q: I read with interest your posts about “false flag” and “crisis actor.” But you used the term “conspiracy theory” without explaining its origin. I’ve read online that it was invented by the CIA after the assassination of JFK to discredit people who thought the shooter didn’t act alone.

A: The CIA did not invent the phrase “conspiracy theory.” It’s been in circulation since at least as far back as 1868, almost 100 years before President Kennedy was assassinated and nearly 80 years before the CIA existed.

Of course there have been conspiracy theories since ancient times—alternate views of history that interpret events as the products of secret conspiracies designed to conceal the truth.

One of the best known is the hypothesis that the Emperor Nero, for one reason or another, secretly orchestrated the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. (Modern scholars think the fire probably started by accident.)

But while conspiracies (both real and imagined) have always been a part of human history, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was recorded in writing.

Before we get to the early examples of the expression, though, let’s look at its definition.

A “conspiracy theory,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties.”

More specifically, the dictionary adds, it’s “a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.”

The definitions in standard dictionaries are similar though shorter, like this one: “A theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators” (Merriam-Webster Unabridged).

It’s interesting that the two earliest examples of “conspiracy theory” that we’ve found are from the same year but in different countries—the US and England.

The first is from a news story in the Boston Post on April 16, 1868:

“The testimony of Gen. Sherman has blown the conspiracy theory of Gen. Butler to the winds; and, of course, it was in a sure anticipation of such a result that he so steadily and brazenly objected to nearly every question put by the counsel for the defence which was calculated to bring it out.” (The testimony was given in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.)

Later that same year, a British periodical printed the phrase in an article about a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle in Scotland:

“She may seem to award to her present Premier a degree of favour which, considering how direct and plain her dealings have ever been, appears to denote her sympathy with his policy, but she surely comprehends that his conspiracy theory is a mere party battle-horse for which she need not find stable room.” (The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art, and Science, December 1868.)

In the 1870s and afterward, examples of “conspiracy theory” become much more common.

In April 1870, for example, another British periodical, The Journal of Mental Science, used the term in replying to allegations that mental patients were being severely beaten by keepers in insane asylums. The journal advanced another hypothesis to account for the patients’ injuries, and called the allegations of beatings a “conspiracy theory.”

Many sightings of “conspiracy theory” in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s are from news stories about crimes and courtroom proceedings. In such articles, it usually meant a hypothesis that an act was committed by more than one person.

This quotation, for example, is from a San Francisco newspaper’s account of a murder trial in which charges against a family of four were dismissed:

“The conspiracy theory was too intricate. He [the judge] was certain Blanche was not in it and how she could be left out he could not understand.” (The Daily Alta California, Aug. 30, 1873.)

And in a report about a far more sensational case, Henry Ward Beecher’s trial for adultery, this headline appeared: “How Bessie Turner’s Testimony Upsets the Conspiracy Theory.” (The Nashville Union and American, June 25, 1875.)

The first use of “conspiracy theory” in reference to a presidential assassination was in connection with the shooting of James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881. (Garfield died several weeks later.)

This small headline appeared within one news report: “President Garfield and all His Cabinet Reject Conspiracy Theory.” The fact that New York police detectives had been called to Washington, the newspaper said, “started the sensational report that there had been a conspiracy to murder the President.” (Indianapolis Evening Star, July 4, 1881.)

The hypothesis—soon disproved—that the assassin did not act alone was also labeled “The Conspiracy Theory” in a headline on a different story published that same day in the Indianapolis Star.

Predictably, the expression got a good workout 20 years later after another president was assassinated.

By Sept. 8, 1901, two days after President William McKinley was shot by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, “conspiracy theory” began popping up in the news. The theory here—that the shooting was an anarchist plot—was never proven. But it had some credibility, since Czolgosz admitted that he had been inspired by the writings of other anarchists.

For example, the headline “Conspiracy Theory Confirmed” appeared above a report that “an Italian” had been standing in front of Czolgosz until just before he fired the shots. (From a bulletin wired from London Sept. 8 and published the next day in the Adelaide Register in Australia.)

Citations in the OED haven’t yet caught up to these earlier sightings of “conspiracy theory.” The dictionary’s first example is from 1909:

“The claim that Atchison was the originator of the repeal may be termed a recrudescence of the conspiracy theory first asserted by Colonel John A. Parker of Virginia in 1880.” (From a review of a book, The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, in the American Historical Review, July 1909.)

Published appearances of “conspiracy theory” continued right through the 20th century—with a spurt of activity after the JFK assassination—and on into our own time.

Along the way, a parallel term developed, “conspiracy theorist,” a noun phase that’s included in the OED and in standard dictionaries. Most don’t define it, however. An exception is the Cambridge Dictionary online: “someone who believes in a conspiracy theory.”

We haven’t found any examples of “conspiracy theorist” that predate the first citation given in the OED. It’s from the May 1, 1964, issue of the New Statesman:

“Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed by the absence of a dogmatic introduction.” (The comment was about a literary magazine’s transition to a broader coverage of the arts.)

Over the years, these terms have taken on a darker meaning. Today the “conspiracy” goes beyond the notion of someone’s acting with accomplices instead of alone. It also implies the involvement of entire governments or vast interests, not mere individuals.

Many of the OED’s citations reflect this broader use of “conspiracy theory,” like this one from the early 1950s:

“I call it the ‘conspiracy theory of society.’ It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon.” (From Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, rev. 2nd ed., 1952.)

And we found this early example from the 1970s of the wider meaning of “conspiracy theorist”:

“An invisible ‘supergovernment’ consisting of ‘organized crime, intelligence fronts, and war industry’ controls America, conspiracy theorist Rusty Rhodes told an audience of 250 last night in Cubberley Auditorium.” (The Stanford Daily, May 16, 1974.)

Rhodes, according to the article, went on to say that this “supergovernment … committed such wildly diverse acts as the assassination of President John Kennedy and the kidnaping [sic] of Patty Hearst.”

In short, the CIA did not invent the phrase “conspiracy theory.” And we’ve found no evidence that the agency tried to popularize it to make critics of the Warren Commission report look foolish.

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