The citation many websites and books of quotations give for Will Rogers’ famous catchphrase “Well, all I know is what I read in the papers” is the September 30, 1923 issue of The New York Times — and that’s clearly his most famous use in print.
However, Rogers actually started using the line years earlier in his live stage performances.
It gained initial fame when he used it during his appearances in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic shows in the fall of 1915.
Rogers would stand on the stage dressed in his cowboy outfit, leisurely twirling a lariat, while he commented on recent news stories.
He often started his Midnight Frolic monologues by saying something like:
“Well, what shall I talk about? I ain’t got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers.”
In December of 1922, Rogers began writing a weekly column for the McNuaght Syndicate titled “Slipping the Lariat Over.”
It was published in The New York Times — and eventually in 600 other daily and weekly newspapers.
Rogers’ column was something like a written version of his stage show. He would note recent items in the news, then make slyly witty remarks about them.
In that week’s column, Rogers commented on news stories which had speculated that a recent earthquake in Japan had somehow caused an accidental grounding of U.S. Navy ships near New York City and various other unusual events.
“Well, all I know is what I read in the Papers. That Japanese Earthquake, in addition to being the greatest calamity in the history of the World, even at the time that it happened, has, according to Newspapers and Experts, not reaped half of its destruction yet. Every day something happens and we don’t know exactly just what it is, and it will turn out in the Morning Paper to be the Earthquake in Japan that caused it.
We lost 7 Self Destroyers on the rocks just above here the other day. People thought at first that it might have been a Fog, but it wasn’t; it was the earthquake in Japan.”
Later in that column Rogers humorously praised fighter Luis Firpo for not blaming his defeat in a recent boxing match on the earthquake in Japan.
He also noted drily:
“I read where Will Hays went to Europe with Ambassador Harvey [the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain]. Now I don’t know if that was Politics or the Earthquake — either one is equally destructive.”
Rogers went on to use “all I know is what I read in the papers,” with minor variations, in many following “Slipping the Lariat Over” columns.
His column was hugely popular and he continued writing it until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1935.
Rogers once said about the success of his newspaper column:
“When I first started out to write and misspelled a few words, people said I was plain ignorant. But when I got all the words wrong, they declared I was a humorist.”
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Further reading and viewing: by and about Will Rogers…