Harry Truman was generally known as one of the most plain- and direct-speaking of American Presidents. So much so that he is generally credited with coining the phrase, “the buck stops here.” By the time Truman became president in 1945, “passing the buck” had long been American slang for passing the responsibility for something onto to someone else, usually the next person up or down the chain of command in a certain group or organization. Originally, it comes from using a buckhorn handle knife as a marker in a game of poker. The “buck” would pass around the table to the person whose turn it was (that is, whose responsibility it was) to deal the next hand. But did Truman coin the phrase, “the buck stops here”?
Nope, Buzzkillers, he didn’t. But the origin of this quote has as much to do with Truman being from Missouri as anything else. Here’s what happened. In early 1945, Fred A. Canfil, the U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and a personal friend of Truman’s, happened to be visiting the Federal Reformatory in El Reno, Oklahoma, a place for young male offenders. Among other things, the El Reno Reformatory had various workshops and other facilities to teach the young inmates something useful. Canfil saw a desk sign painted with the phrase, “The Buck Stops Here” in one of the workshops. Canfil thought that President Truman would like to have such a sign. He asked the Reformatory Warden if an identical sign could be made for the President. The young men in the Reformatory workshop duly made the sign, and it was sent to Truman on October 2, 1945.
The President was delighted with the gift and placed it on his desk in the Oval Office, and he often referred to it in subsequent speeches. The most direct reference was in an address to the National War College in 1952. Unfortunately, we don’t have audio from that speech, but Truman said, “You know, it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you — and on my desk I have a motto which says The Buck Stops Here’ — the decision has to be made.”
He also referred to the idea of “the buck stops here” in his farewell address to the nation in January 1953. “The President–whoever he is–has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”
But there’s another side to the story. That’s because there’s another side to that sign. The “back” of the sign says, “I’m from Missouri!” And that “Missouri” reference may have been one of the reasons that Fred Canfil thought Truman would like the sign when he saw it at the Reformatory.
And this brings me to a final thought about the famous “Buck Stops Here” sign. Famous quotes and mottos are often shortened versions of longer (and more meaningful) sayings. The Truman Presidential Library in Independence refers to “The Buck Stops Here” as the front of the sign, and “I’m from Missouri!” as the back of the sign. But Buzzkill Institute researchers can find no evidence or record of who originally designed the sign, or which side was designed to be the front, and which side was designed to be the back. Most people think of the full saying as, “The Buck Stops Here! I’m from Missouri.” But I think the original saying on the sign might have been meant to be read the other way around. My suspicion is that the whole motto and phrase makes more logical sense and was originally intended to read, “I’m from Missouri. The Buck Stops Here!” And I’m absolutely certain that Truman would have loved that initial emphasis on being from the Show Me State.
So “Give ’em Hell, Missouri,” and tell ’em Professor Buzzkill told you to.
*Thanks to Buzzkiller Extraordinaire, Mary Miley Theobald, whose research has confirmed the origin of “pass the buck”:
Revisited Myth #116: The phrase “passing the buck” comes from poker where a token, called a buck, indicated the dealer.