8 Presidential Communication Firsts

Bill Clinton Participating in the First Presidential Webchat // Getty Images
Bill Clinton Participating in the First Presidential Webchat // Getty Images / Bill Clinton Participating in the First Presidential Webchat // Getty Images

When Franklin Roosevelt declared “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking” in a radio address to the American people on March 12, 1933, he was making history. The address—in which Roosevelt explained his reasoning behind calling a banking holiday to reorganize the battered industry and to announce their reopening—was the first of FDR's “fireside chats,” which represented a game-changing communications strategy and use of technology for The White House. Roosevelt bypassed the news media and spoke directly to the citizenry, creating an aura of calmness and confidence during the Great Depression and World War II (though he never gave a radio address near an actual fireplace). Here are eight other firsts and breakthroughs in presidential communication.

1. First State of the Union Address // George Washington

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution stipulates that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The task first fell to George Washington eight months after his inauguration. On January 8, 1790, the former general addressed Congress at the provincial capital of New York City. Because the nation was new, the address covered some basics of maintaining a country. Washington called for the creation of a standing army; money to fund foreign relations; a process for naturalizing foreigners, “[u]niformity in the currency, weights, and measures,” and “the promotion of science and literature.”

2. First Telegraph Line // Abraham Lincoln

Congress authorized funding for Samuel F.B. Morse to build a test telegraph between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in 1843. While Lincoln’s may not have been the first administration to send or receive information via telegraph, it was the first to have a line installed in the War Department, starting in May 1862. (Previously, public officials who wanted to wire a message had to stand in line in a clerk’s office with everyone else.) Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln used the line extensively, starting his day by shifting through communication from various state governors and generals. Some nights, he even slept in the telegraph room. The wire also allowed him to directly oversee the war, giving specific orders for movements and troop counts.

3. First Telephone Line // Rutherford B. Hayes

Fred A. Gower, the managing agent of Alexander Graham Bell, personally oversaw the installation of the first telephone line in the White House in 1877. Gower helped President Rutherford B. Hayes dial up Bell at a hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, in June of that year. According to the Providence Journal, “The President listened carefully while a gradually increasing smile wreathed his lips, and wonder shone in his eyes more and more, until he took the little instrument from his ear, looked at it a moment in surprise, and remarked, ‘That is wonderful.’” The phone was connected permanently to the only other one in Washington, that of the Treasury Department.

4. First Radio Address // Warren G. Harding

Roosevelt was not the first president heard over the airwaves. That honor goes to Warren G. Harding. On June 14, 1922, Harding gave a speech to commemorate the unveiling of a memorial to Francis Scott Key. Due to concerns that too many people would want to hear Harding speak for the venue to accommodate, the decision was made to broadcast the speech on radio. Originally, a transmitting station was going to be built in Baltimore, but that was deemed too expensive. Instead, Harding's voice was transmitted via telephone to the Anacostia broadcasting station and then from Anacostia broadcast to the people of Baltimore. A few months later, Harding used the same transmit-to-Anacostia trick for his State of the Union, which, according to a contemporary New York Times article, was “passed along through relay stations to a good part of the country,” including his sick wife.

5. First Televised Address // Harry Truman

There were 44,000 TVs in the U.S. when President Harry Truman made the first televised primetime address on October 5, 1947. Truman essentially called on Americans to eat less, saving the country’s excess food supply for European countries still recovering from World War II. Truman suggested Americans skip meat on Tuesdays and eggs and poultry on Thursdays and set aside a slice of bread each day. He also suggested restaurants skip the complimentary bread and butter. “We believe that self-control is the best control,” he said. “From now on, we shall be testing at every meal the degree to which each of us is willing to exercise self-control for the good of all.”

6. First Email // Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton has often said that the first email he sent as president was to astronaut John Glenn, who had recently boarded the International Space Station to test the effects of space on aging. But as The Atlantic confirmed last year, this is a complete myth. John Gibbons, Clinton’s Science Advisor, explained, “we wanted to introduce the President to email and the Net. So we brought him over to the old EOB, and he sat down in front of this computer—it may have been the first time he sat down in front of a computer—and showed him how email worked and gave him his email address over across the street in the Oval Office. So he typed in his first email message. It was something like, Bill Clinton, it’s time to come home for lunch. Signed, Hillary, something like that. I saved a copy of it. That was his first email.” And in 1994, the New York Times reported on an email that Clinton sent to the Prime Minister of Sweden. And in what was described as a breach of netiquette even back then, it was “COMPOSED ENTIRELY OF CAPITAL LETTERS.”

7. First Webchat // Bill Clinton

Almost exactly a year after his purported exchange with Glenn, Clinton became the first president to take questions from Internet users in a forum hosted by Democratic Leadership Council and the Internet company Excite@Home. Digital communications had boomed during his administration. In 1993, 1.3 million computers were connected to the web. By 1999, 56 million were online. For 90 minutes on November 8, 1999, a moderator sorted through questions posed to Clinton and an assistant typed out his answers. (The 53-year-old president admitted to being “technologically challenged.”) About 50,000 watched the video feed. Clinton responded to a questioner that the chances of a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians were “better than 50-50.” He also told “Cynthia in Arizona” that he was not hoarding food in preparation for the Y2K computer crash.

8. First Tweet // Barack Obama

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign made unprecedented use of social media. When he was elected to office, his staff instituted The White House Twitter account, while political allies kept up his @BarackObama. Obama never sent a tweet from his own fingers, however, until a tour of the Red Cross’s Washington, D.C. headquarters on January 18, 2010. A Red Cross employee apparently coaxed Obama to hit the “send” button on a tweet reading, “President Obama and the First Lady are here visiting our disaster operation center right now,” marking the first tweet physically delivered by a U.S. president. On May 18, 2015, Obama established his own Twitter account, @POTUS.