Did Lord Northcliffe invent the phrase “When a man bites a dog”?

Lord Northcliffe
Lord Northcliffe – did he come up with the saying?

One of the best known definitions of news is that when a dog bites a man, that is not news because it happens so often. But when a man bites a dog, that is news.

It is a great quote; it’s memorable and concisely gets across the essence of what gives something news value.

I had always thought it was from Daily Mail founder Lord Northcliffe, but it seems he may not have been the author of it after all.

While reading Hamilton Fyfe’s history of the British newspaper industry, Sixty Years of Fleet Street, recently, I came across a passage about it. Fyfe suggests that, while Northcliffe often used it, it was actually Charles Dana, the American newspaper editor, who said it first.

Fyfe wrote:

Northcliffe was very fond of that ancient yarn about the nature of news and the definition given by Charles Dana, a famous American editor: “If a dawg bites a man, that isn’t noos. If a man bites a dawg, that is.” Dana meant that ordinary everyday occurrences were not worth notice; it was the unusual, the exceptional, that the public cared to hear about.

Whoever came up with it, it has stuck. Not only is it regularly used to explain what news is, but it has also inspired a film and a PR agency.

It also means that any time a man does actually bite a dog, it is a story journalists can hardly disguise their glee at getting the chance to cover.

Take this Reuters article about an incident as India with the “It’s News!” in-joke in the headline (which seems a bit less funny when you get to the end and discover the dog has been beaten to death) or this about a man who bites a police dog.

But the earliest example I’ve found is about a man in London who bit an Alsatian in 1970. “I had no intention of hurting the dog,” said the man during the ensuing court case. “It was just an issue between me and him. He bit me, so I bit him back.”

UPDATE: I’m very pleased that this post has inspired the brilliant Quote Investigator blog to do a post on the origin of “man bites dog”. Its verdict? It’s unclear who said it first.

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