A History of Spokesman-in-Chief

By Andrew Gauthier 


President Barack Obama was the sole guest on “Late Night with David Letterman” on Monday and it was a fitting position for a President who has revolutionized how the Oval Office engages with the public.

Obama has several presidential PR “firsts” under his belt. In March, he became the first sitting president to be interviewed on a late night show when he appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”


During his campaign, he made unprecedented use of the web to get the word out. My.BarackObama.comprovided a forum for his supporters and phone number listings of swing-state voters.

When he came to office, Obama brought the weekly Presidential address to YouTube, where he has had a channel since 2006. The weekly address was a tradition started by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and came to be an important part of every president’s PR strategy. Obama has innovated the role of Spokesman-in-Chief but he certainly wasn’t the first President to do so. Here’s a look at how the office has evolved its public presence…

1896 “The Great Commoner,” William Jennings Bryan, Democrat presidential candidate, embarks on the first campaign train tour.
At the time, this level of publicity was considered “undignified” for someone seeking public office. The 1896 Presidential Election is considered the precursor to the modern campaign, for its adept use of publicity.

1901-1909 Teddy Roosevelt becomes the first president to generously provide interviews and photo opportunities to White House reporters.
When he invited a group of journalists waiting in the rain outside the White House to come in, and designated a room for their use, he effectively created the modern White House press conference room.

1910 President William Taft throws the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game.
Taft threw for the Washington Senators at the National Park. The Senators won, 3-0.

1913 President Woodrow Wilson holds the first formal press conference on March 15.
Wilson was the first president to hold regular, formal conferences.

1929 George Edward Akerson becomes the first White House Press Secretary.
Akerson was chosen by President Herbert Hoover.

1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gives his first fireside chat on March 12.
FDR gave 30 fireside chats in total. He often began the informal address with “Good evening, friends.” Every president since FDR has delivered a regular, weekly address.

1960 The first presidential debate is televised nationally, between Republican incumbent Richard Nixon, and Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy.
Unaccustomed to the format, Nixon, who was recovering from an infection, refused the producer’s advice to wear stage makeup. Next to a younger, tanner JFK, Nixon looked sickly and frail. Viewers considered JFK the winner of the debate, while those who had listened to the radio broadcast thought Nixon had won.

1973 Richard Nixon’s inauguration is the first nationally televised presidential inauguration.
33 million viewers tuned in.

1981 A record number of viewers, 41.8 million, watch Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration.
As Reagan gave the speech, 52 Americans who had been held hostage in Iran for 444 days were released.

2005 George W. Bush is the first president to have a podcast.
The White House website added an RSS feed of the president’s weekly radio addresses in July.