Birth of the presidential "sound bite"

The 1908 presidential campaign was the first time that the candidates, William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft, recorded their voices for voters to hear. The recordings on early phonographs were used to rally support, or simply demonstrate the technology, at political gatherings, concert halls, and even shops selling the Edison phonographs. Science News has a fascinating history of the "first sound bites," including audio samples. From Science News:


"Mr. Bryan seemed a little nervous when he first started, much more so, he said, than he ever felt in facing an audience of ten thousand people," Harold Voorhis recalled. Voorhis, an agent for the National Phonograph Company, was partly responsible for the candidate's discomfort: He had brought a phonograph into the library of Bryan's house in Lincoln, Neb., to record some of his speeches, old and current. "Considering that his words were to be reproduced all over the world in perhaps a million homes, … I thought he showed remarkable composure," Voorhis wrote in the July 1908 Edison Phonograph Monthly.

Whether for profit or prestige, the 1908 campaign was the first in which presidential candidates recorded their own voices for the mass market. "We now have Records by Mr. Bryan and Mr. Taft, so that no matter how the November election may result, we shall have Records by the next President," an advertisement in the September 1908 Edison Phonograph Monthly exclaimed. "Now, for the first time, one can introduce the rival candidates for the Presidency in one's own home, can listen to their political views, expressed in their real voices, and make comparisons."
In New York City, an enterprising businessman set up a penny arcade featuring a Bryan-Taft "debate." Mannequins stood before a phonograph that spouted the candidates' voices…

"You could draw a genealogy from the televised presidential debates of today straight back to these" recordings, says record historian Patrick Feaster of Indiana University in Bloomington. "An awful lot of political speechmaking nowadays is mediated; the idea of someone simply addressing a live audience [as] the target audience …really doesn't seem to pertain much anymore." The 1908 recordings "are really the first step in that direction."

First presidential "sound bites"