A Google Ngram graph illustrating the usage of the term "spin doctor" over the last three decades.

The term “spin doctor” is ubiquitous in contemporary politics—but what exactly does it mean? And when did it enter the common vernacular?

The Oxford English Dictionary added the term in their 1993 draft addition, and defines it as such: “a political press agent or publicist employed to promote a favourable interpretation of events to journalists.” But that’s just when it entered the dictionary—surely people were using it before then. For it’s full etymology, we must turn to the late William Safire’s “On Language” column for the New York Times Magazine, specifically his August 31, 1986 column entitled “Calling Dr. Spin.” An excerpt is below:

Spin doctor is a locution we must keep our eyes on for 1988. It is based on the slang meaning of the verb to spin, which in the 1950’s meant ”to deceive,” perhaps influenced by ”to spin a yarn.” More recently, as a noun, spin has come to mean ”twist,” or ”interpretation”; when a pitcher puts a spin on a baseball, he causes it to curve, and when we put our own spin on a story, we angle it to suit our predilections or interests.

The phrase spin doctor was coined on the analogy of play doctor, one who fixes up a limping second act, and gains from the larcenous connotation of the verb doctor, to fix a product the way a crooked bookkeeper ”cooks” books.

Its earliest citation in the Nexis computer files is from an editorial in The New York Times on Oct. 21, 1984, about the Reagan-Mondale televised debates. ”Tonight at about 9:30,” wrote the editorialist, ”seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends, a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the press room. . . . A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates. . . .”

…Four days later, Elisabeth Bumiller of The Washington Post picked up the phrase, defining spin doctors – no longer capitalized – as ”the advisers who talk to reporters and try to put their own spin, or analysis, on the story.” The term was thus sealed into the new political vocabulary, and will be trotted out by pundits in the coming campaign to prove that their opinions cannot be influenced.

Read the column