The past few weeks have bombarded us with breaking news out of Washington, dishing up scoop after scoop on President Trump’s ongoing scandals. But for as much it can feel like the White House is breaking, why do we call it breaking news?
Breaks with reality
There are many creative theories for why we say news is breaking. One widespread explanation is that a news broadcast breaks into regularly scheduled programming. Another goes further back in time, claiming a telegraph operator broke into the circuit to transmit urgent messages. Yet more historical is that breaking news comes from messengers breaking open official seals on scrolls to deliver their content.
All of these theories are wrong. (Though breaking news does break into programming, the term predates modern broadcasting, as we will see.) And yet they are right insofar as they point to the extensive ways the verb break is used in the English language.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds breaking news in an 1877 edition of Illinois’s Sterling Daily Gazette and late-breaking news in a 1925 edition of Wisconsin’s Appleton Post-Crescent. For a story to break, or “become public or available,” emerges by the 1930s, fast-breaking news by the 1940s.
These uses of break—which the OED cites as journalistic colloquialisms, given their early use in journalism about journalism—convey “suddenly or surprisingly issuing or coming into notice,” or breaking forth. This “bursting” sense of the verb break, attested by the early 1700s, ultimately suggests a literal rupture, i.e., breaking, of a metaphorical barrier, of knowledge, attention, or the like.
Closely related, though with important if subtle differences, is to break a story or break news. Here, to break means “to reveal” or “disclose.” Journalistically, to break a story appears by the early 1900s. To break news—usually of a sensitive nature, as in “I hate to break the news to you”—emerges by the 1840s. This phrase developed out of earlier uses of break a secret or break one’s mind/heart (to divulge what’s on them), evidenced back in the 1400s. Again, this breaking implies a physical breaking, a bursting to the surface, and certainly influenced the later notion of a story breaking and breaking news.
The word break itself is an old one, used in a range of senses in Old English (brecan) for “tearing apart,” “cracking,” or “crushing,” among others. Forms of break are widespread across the Germanic languages, and its ancient root, the Proto-Indo-European *bhreg-, also yields the word breach and Latin’s frangere (break), source of words from fraction and fracture to fragile and fragment to refrain and, possibly, suffrage.
Some news, as we are seeing with the terrorist attack in Manchester, isn’t just fast-breaking. It’s truly heart-breaking, a term that, alas, has long been with us, going back to the 16th century.