“Dewey Defeats Truman:” The Newspaper Gaffe of the Century

On November 3, 1948, the day after the 1948 presidential election, the sun rose on Chicago. As on every other day, newspapers were delivered and stacked high in newsracks. As the papers were collected and unfurled, their holders would have read on the front page, directly under the Chicago Tribune logo, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” However, Dewey did not defeat Truman. How did the Chicago Tribune, a pillar of upstanding journalism, report the results of the presidential election incorrectly?

FILE – In this Nov. 4, 1948, file photo, President Harry S. Truman at St. Louis’ Union Station holds up an election day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which – based on early results – mistakenly announced “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (AP Photo/Byron Rollins)

First of all, Truman was never supposed to the win the election. Truman was a massive underdog, despite his being the incumbent candidate. Truman had inherited the presidency from Franklin Roosevelt, who had died only three months into his fourth term. By 1948, inflation was high, labor unrest was building (sound familiar?), and Truman’s stance on civil rights had alienated the conservative faction of his party. Thomas Dewey, however, was his party’s hero. He was the conservative governor of New York who had spent his career as an attorney taking on the gangs in the city. 1948 was his second time to be nominated as the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidential election. Polls, media, and public opinion had Dewey as the clear winner of the election long before the polls closed on November 2.

Truman had, in any case, launched an aggressive campaign. He traveled the country by train, stopping in cities all over the United States and speaking out against the ineffectual Congress. Americans responded by saying, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” which became the unofficial slogan of the campaign. On election day, the liberal, laborer, and African American factions that Truman had reached out to showed up to turn the tide of the contest. Despite this, due to a printer’s strike happening in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune had an earlier deadline than normal. So, at 10:30 p.m. on November 2, the paper with the headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN,” followed by “G.O.P. Sweep Indicated in State,” was printed and distributed. In the end, underdog Truman won the election by 114 electoral votes, and the Tribune was forced to reprint and say, “DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES.”

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.chicagotribune.com/175/ct-175-anniversary-chicago-tribune-history-1933-1955-20220605-gwj73yl6bvh2jgxz3ur66waesi-story.html
  2. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/newspaper-mistakenly-declares-dewey-president
  3. https://www.history.com/news/dewey-defeats-truman-election-headline-gaffe
  4. https://millercenter.org/president/truman/campaigns-and-elections
  5. https://www.multco.us/northwest-wing-exhibition/1948-harry-s-truman-presidential-campaign