Definition: To accept responsibility for an action or decision.
Related phrase: “passing the buck” means passing or evading blame. The term is from the world of poker in which a marker (often a buckhorn knife in the mid to late 1800s) indicated which player would deal. If a player did not want to deal, he would pass the marker (“pass the buck”) to the next player.
Origin: Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the U.S., is often credited with coining this well-know phrase; however it is certain that he did not coin it, but he (or more accurately, the White House Press Corps) certainly did popularize it and it came to accurately reflect the president’s management style. In April of 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage, pushing a rather ordinary, uneducated, and obscure midwesterner, the son of a Missouri mule trader, into the Oval Office. Harry S. (incidentally, the S. didn’t stand for anything, it was added to placate his two grandfathers, Anderson Ship Truman and Solomon Young) Truman stepped into the shadow of a legend, FDR. Historian Kenneth Davis writes: “When Truman took office, most Americans were in a state of shock. FDR was the only president they could remember. Despite their enormous personal differences, however, Truman pledged to carry out FDR’s policies. He would just do it in his own style.” One month into his presidency, Truman met with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam (from July 16 to August 2, 1945) and declared: “I am here to make decisions and whether they prove right or wrong, I am going to make them.” He could have easily said, “Gentlemen, the buck stops here.” In fact, Truman did use the phrase in future speeches.
The expression was initially publicized in an article for the Reno Evening Gazette in 1942 that shows Colonel A. B. Warfield (commandant of the Lathrop Holding and Reconsignment depot at Stockton, California) sitting behind a desk. On that desk was a small sign that read “The Buck Stops Here.” Little is known about who made that desk sign and the specific reason for why that phrase was used. One can surmise that the phrase was generally known and used in the early 1940s, having its roots in the world of poker. One could also speculate that Warfield might have been a poker player or familiar with the jargon of poker, and that specific phrase resonated with his particular management style — predating Truman’s adoption of the phrase.
Three years later, in late September of 1945, Fred Canfil, U.S. Marshall for the Western District of Missouri and a friend of Truman, was visiting the Federal Reformatory in El Reno, Oklahoma and was captivated by the desk sign with the phrase “The Buck Stops Here!” on the desk of L. Clark Schilder who served as warden from November 5, 1940 to June 28, 1947. Since it captured Truman’s signature style, Canfil asked for a replica of the sign as a gift for the president. Thomas Hardwick, the son of Associate Warden William Harvey Hardwick and who grew up at the reformatory (now in his late 70s), explained to Bookshelf: “Buford Earl Tressider Sr., a correctional officer in charge of the paint division, actually made the sign on the warden’s desk and the one given to President Truman.” Schilder sent the sign, in addition to carved walnut bookends, to the White House on October 9, 1945. The sign was presented to Truman soon after (David McCullough’s biography of Truman incorrectly states that it was fall of 1946) and it sat proudly on Truman’s desk for many years.
The desk sign is approximately 13 inches wide, 2.5 inches tall made of painted glass mounted on a walnut base. On the front it read “The Buck Stops Here!” on the other side (facing Truman) it read, “I’m from Missouri” implying the unofficial motto of Missouri “I am from Missouri. You have got to show me!” that indicates that natives of the state are generally skeptical. The phrase is attributed to Willard Vandiver, U.S. Congressman from Missouri from 1897 to 1903, who said at a naval banquet held in Philadelphia in 1899: “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
Truman’s desk sign is on display at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. There is no information about the current location or owner of Warfield’s or Schilder’s desk sign. Thomas Hardwick is currently doing research to uncover more details about the legendary phrase and desk signs. Specifically, Hardwick is interested in solving the mystery of how a phrase went from common usage to being etched on a desk sign.
Special thanks to Thomas Hardwick’s extensive and detailed notes from his years of research.
For further reading: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: Famous Slogans and Catchphrases in American History by Jan Van Meter, Chicago University Press (2008). Truman by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster (1992)
Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents by Kenneth Davis, Hyperion (2012)
Common Phrases: And the Amazing Stories Behind Them by Max Cryer, Skyhorse Publishing (2010)