12/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Untold History of "Dewey Defeats Truman"

Tonight's U.S. Presidential election election marks the 60th anniversary of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune. Since that headline was first published, it has become perhaps the most famous press error of all time. This is the story of how and why it happened.

On election night in 1948, President Harry Truman took a Turkish bath, had a sandwich and glass of milk for dinner, and went to bed early. Both he and his Republican opponent, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, had said earlier in the day that they didn't expect to learn the final result until the next morning.

The pollsters and press were of a different opinion. As far they were concerned, Dewey had it in the bag.

On September 9, less than two months before election day, Elmo Roper, the head of public opinion research firm Roper Research Associates, Inc. and a columnist for Fortune magazine, reported that Dewey was at 44.2 percent support, while Truman lagged behind at 31.4 percent. Gallup gave Dewey a five point lead just before the election, and other pollsters had been declaring Dewey's strength for months.

Jonathan Daniels, the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer and a consultant to the Truman campaign, later recalled the mood in his newsroom on election night.

"We have a custom on The News and Observer when there is a great Democratic victory -- this goes back to my father's time -- of printing a red crowing rooster across the front page, and so the night of the election, I asked the managing editor, 'Have you got that rooster out?' he told an interviewer for the Truman Library in 1963. "And the boys grinned at me and said, 'Yeah, we got it out,' but the whole implication was that they didn't think they would have need for it."

The mood was likely the same in the offices of the Chicago Daily Tribune. By late afternoon on election day, editors were preparing the first edition of the paper. They were dealing with some significant problems. The skilled workers who operated the Linotype machines -- huge, clacking creations that turned out small bricks of type used to create the printing plates for a daily newspaper -- had been on strike at all six Chicago dailies since the previous November. The strike meant that some of the paper's most skilled workers, and the useful machines they operated, were out of service.

Rather than using the Linotype machines to quickly prepare plates for printing, the paper was pasting together pages of text cobbled together on typewriters. Adding to Tribune's woes was the fact that returns were coming in slowly, even from the Eastern part of the country. The facts at hand were inconclusive, but deadline approached.

"A call was made to the paper's Washington correspondent, Arthur Sears Henning, who had been wrong just once in the previous 20 years," the Tribune reported in a 2006 article. "He stuck by his prediction that it would be Dewey."

The first edition of the paper, made available by 7:30 p.m. on election night, carried the front page headline "GOVERNOR DEWEY CLAIMS VICTORY." Copies were trucked out to distributors and hawked on the street. Meanwhile, the staff was busy preparing what would become the infamous second edition. At about 9 p.m. on election night, it began hitting the streets.

"DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" declared the headline.

The paper went on to publish nine subsequent editions that night and into the morning, but few people remember them. Today, sixty years after it was first published, that headline has become the most recognized press error in American history, though by no means the first or last incorrect presidential election headline.

In the 1876 race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, many papers mistakenly gave the victory to Tilden. In 1916, the San Francisco Examiner put Charles Hughes in the White House instead of Woodrow Wilson. In 2000, many broadcasters and newspapers also made the wrong call.

Though the most notable error, the headline wasn't the only mistake made by the Tribune's taxed staff. The paper's use of typewriters to lay out pages meant that it couldn't easily update vote totals as they poured in before deadline.

"The front page was done with a typewriter because nobody knew how to run the Linotype machines," Rick Brown, the former publisher and editor of Collectible Newspapers, the newspaper of the Newspaper Collectors Society of America, told me when I interviewed him for my book. "They typed out the columns one at a time and then glued them down. If they made an error in the vote totals, they'd go back and just 'X' out a digit. If it said 762 votes for Dewey but the correct number was 782, they'd go back to where '6' was and keep hitting '8' until it was a lot darker [than the 6]."

This meant some of the vote totals were illegible. On top of that, someone responsible for gluing down the typewritten columns also managed to place five lines of text upside down in a below-the-fold story. Not long after "Dewey Defeats Truman" hit the streets, the paper realized its mistake. It sent out trucks to recall copies from distributors, but the damage was done. Subsequent editions that night made no mention of the paper's error. In fact, many in the broadcast press continued to promise a Dewey victory through the early morning of November 3.

At midnight, Truman awoke and listened to NBC Radio commentator H.V Kaltenborn report that, "Mr. Truman is still ahead but these are returns from a few cities. When the returns come in from the country the result will show Dewey winning overwhelmingly."

Truman went back to bed. After being roused later that night by an advisor, the sleepy incumbent told everyone to leave him alone. Then, at around 4 a.m., the Secret Service entered his room and implored him to turn on the radio. Kaltenborn reported Truman was ahead in the popular vote - this time by an even larger margin than before - and once again suggested that Dewey would carry the day.

Truman had heard enough. He began preparing to head back to Washington as the newly re-elected president. (Once back in Washington, Truman got back at the renowned commentator by doing a cutting impersonation of him at the Electoral College dinner in January 1949. Kaltenborn eventually returned the favor by doing "an impersonation of Truman impersonating Kaltenborn," according to Time magazine.)

At 11:14 a.m. on November 3, Governor Dewey conceded via telegram. Less than two hours later, he faced the press.

"I was just as surprised as you are," he told the assembled reporters. "And I gather that is shared by everybody in the room, as I read your stories before the election."

Read the rest of this story here.