The word deadline refers to a time limit and according to the Oxford Dictionary, it’s American newspaper jargon from around 1920 that blends two words together: dead and line. This may well be true as an edition of The Age newspaper dated December 26, 1951 that dealt with the cease-fire agreement in Korea.
The Christmas good-will spirit left armistice negotiators unaffected, and today there was again no progress. The deadline for agreement on an armistice is December 27 (Thursday). The United Nations spokesman, General Nuckols, said that neither the Communists nor the United Nations had asked for an extension of the 30-day period of a cease-fire line agreement.
And true to what was found in the Oxford Dictionary, the Baltimore Sun newspaper ran a story on July 7, 1920 entitled, “Our Next President Will Be A Seasoned Newspaper Man.” The article began by stating:
Harding and Cox have both served from printer’s “devil” to Editor, and both will be callous to such expression as “beat,” “trim,” “cut,” “kill” and “deadline.”
However, it appears that in 1920, the word deadline also had another meaning. It was a more literal meaning of the word although still very much in keeping with the more figurative meaning. This is confirmed by a news article carried by the New York Times on March 21, 1920 entitled, “Thieves Open Steamship Office Safe And Get $179.80” and reads in part:
Safe robbers manipulated the combination of the safe in the building of Bennet, Hvoslef & Co., steamship agents, at 18 Broadway, last Tuesday and escaped with $179.80. The police believe the robbery was the work of expert safe burglars who have robbed more than half a dozen safes below the police “deadline” in the financial district within the last two months. The robbers are alleged to have concealed their finger prints by rubbing the surface of the safe with a damp cloth.
On January 11, 1880 the New York Times published a story entitled “Rising Old Men” that dealt with men of a certain age attaining and retaining positions and power in public life as had never been seen before. It read in part:
Of course, nature, when offended, is always sure to have her revenge, and coarse indulgences sometimes were the resort of old men, when driven from the wholesome air of genial society and left to themselves to gossip and gormandize, and sometimes to guzzle and to gamble. The new civilization changes all of this, and people who have living thought and purpose, and who agree in taste and ideas, associate freely together without even the different uniform of age and youth; and sometimes the youngest heart of the company belongs to some gifted man or woman who has long passed the dead-line of 50, as this date is often called.
In 1863, after then-President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Deputy U.S. Marshals oftentimes employed the services of local farmers to serve as lookouts to work the “dead line” between Arkansas and Indian Territory.
And in 1864, there was more than one comment noted in documents of the “dead line” in the stockades. In fact, the first prisoner to die crossing the “dead line” was Caleb Coplan, a private in Company A, 1st Ohio infantry. Captured on September 19, 1864 at Chickamauga, Coplan ducked under the “dead line” on April 9, 1864 and was promptly shot by a sentry. He died the following day.
In the Report of the Secretary of War dated October 31, 1865, it was reported that Captain Henry Wirz, who was in charge of the stockade where Coplan was shot and died “did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners a “dead line” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, where Wirz instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under [or] across the said “dead line” …. “
Captain Henry Wirz was court-martialed, and found guilty of charges of cruelty, murder and acts of inhumanity in May 1865. The court-martial was presided over by U.S. Major General Lew Wallace.
A little more than 30 years before that, however, the Library of U.S. History documents a situation where the hewed log residence of Joel Sayre was used in 1831 as both a court and a jail. With William Bonnet as jailer and William Bonnet Jr. and Silas Carney as guards, the “dead line” marked the limits of the jail and separated it from what was set aside to be the court room.
Two generations before that, however, in 1763 American colonists could not established homesteads on lands lying westward of the source of any river flowing through the Atlantic seaboard. The dead-line, as it was referred to, identified for colonists cut off them off from about half of Pennsylvania and half of Virginia as well as everything from that point westward.
Idiomation was unable to find a reference to dead lines prior to 1763 however the use of the word in 1763 implies it was used in every day language and dates back to at least 1750.