The origin of the “bulldog,” newsroom lingo for “early edition,” is murky as ink, but the term likely became popular during the American newspaper wars when print editions were sold on street corners by avowed rivals.
“I think the derivation refers to 19th Century newspapers competing like bulldogs for readers, back in the day when each city had many newspapers,” Gordon Crovitz, columnist and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, told Maclean’s.
According to a 961-page online compendium known as The Facts on File: Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, big-city newspapers fought viciously for readers, and the early papers came to be known as the bulldog editions in the 1890s.
In the movie Citizen Kane, based in part on that era’s publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, Charles Kane mentions the “bulldog’s just gone to press,” at 11:30 p.m., so late it’s actually a very early edition of the following day’s publication.
And Hearst himself may be the source of the term, if you believe Webster’s New World Dictionary of Media and Communications, 4th Edition.
The bulldog “probably originated in the 1890s, when the New York World and other morning newspapers published early editions in time to catch the mail trains, with the newspapers fighting like bulldogs to make their deadlines and to outscoop each other,” wrote author Richard Weiner.
“Another alleged origin holds that in 1905 William Randolph Hearst urged the editors of his New York American to write strong headlines that would bite the public like a bulldog.”
Late New York Times columnist and word nerd William Safire, who wrote on language and etymology, admitted he was clueless when it came to the source. When the Times started to publish its own bulldog edition, Safire’s fellow journalists would ask him where the bulldog name came from.
“I would always bark, ‘Dunno!’ – short for a lexicographer’s ‘origin obscure,’ ” Safire wrote in a 1996 column.
But the term could also be derived, like much of the industry’s slang, from now-ancient practices of type-setting or sales, said Kansas University professor emeritus Rick Musser, who curates an American journalism history website.
“For all I know, some enterprising tabloid press editor in New York or Baltimore stuck a promotional picture of a bulldog on his early edition to set it apart from the others,” and the name stuck, he said. “Sometimes phrases are of unknown origin.”
Columbia University historian and journalism professor Andie Tucher said it’s likely “one of those phrases that everyone in journalism has heard but no one can source.”
The term has been used at Canadian newspapers as well. At one time, the bulldog edition of the following day’s Globe and Mail would appear around 8:30 p.m. for sale on the street and shipping out of town, said Ryerson University journalism professor Gene Allen. Taxis would be waiting outside the newsroom to take them to local radio and TV stations for the evening news.
The first reference to a “bull-dog edition” was noted in 1926 by the Oxford English Dictionary, which simply defines it as the earliest edition of a daily paper.