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How POTUS became the world's most powerful acronym

The Great Seal in the Oval Office
The Great Seal in the Oval Office
Paul Richards/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

When President Obama launched the official presidential Twitter account earlier this year, the choice of handle was obvious: @POTUS.

POTUS stands for "president of the United States" and has a few advantages: It's more concise than "President Obama," more respectful than just "Obama," and more clear than "the president."

But POTUS isn't just a silly-sounding acronym. It's managed to become a symbol of the power and mystique of the presidency, even though the word was initially embraced for convenience alone.

POTUS pops up on the telegraph

A drawing of a telegraph operator in the 1880s

A drawing of a telegraph operator in the 1880s

Print Collector/Getty Images

The telegraph is probably where the first POTUS appeared, since it often used shorthand to save its human operators time and effort.

The acronym "POT" (for "president of the") appeared in the 1879 edition of The Phillips Telegraphic Code for the Rapid Transmission by Telegraph, written by influential telegrapher Walter P. Phillips, who later worked for the Associated Press:

An early definition of "POT"

An early definition of "POT."

Phillips via Google Books

As the telegraph continued to be used, including for newswire services like the Associated Press, Phillips's guide established a few customary acronyms. As a result, even in the 1940s, records labeled FDR's international telegraphs as having been sent by POTUS.

Later wire services, like those of newspapers and railroads, helped keep POTUS alive well after the telephone took hold. In the 1940s, and possibly earlier, they used POTUS as code for the car the president was in. Not only did POTUS keep messages short when railroads communicated via telegraph, but it helped associate the word with a rumbling moving fortress. In 1950, the New York Times noted that railroads used a POTUS car to carry President Truman during his whistle stop tours.

POTUS could be both grand and fun. In 1959, the Washington Post interviewed an aide who recalled the "POTUS parties" he worked on, which meant any rail trip with a world leader. (The aide also boasted about his adventures on the train, earning a handshake from FDR and singing "Auld Lang Syne" with Winston Churchill.) There's evidence that the "POTUS" car tradition carried at least into the Eisenhower administration.

Soon POTUS became a button on a phone ... and an occasional Secret Service code name

POTUS Lyndon Johnson and staff, when the term started to take off

POTUS Lyndon Johnson and staff, when the term started to take off.

Photo Quest/Getty Images

The POTUS acronym floated around through the '60s, too — in 1962, columnist George Dixon took to the pages of the Washington Post to complain that POTUS was just one of Washington's many new acronym obsessions. "Well I'll be a LOB, PRISM, and SNAFU if we're not going acronym crazy," he began his column. He concluded by saying, "I wonder that POTUS doesn't call a halt." Despite the complaints, POTUS gradually left its trail on a series of presidencies, perhaps most notably with Lyndon Johnson.

In 1966, Life magazine caught members of the Johnson administration mumbling about something called "POTUS" — and a secretary showed off the POTUS label on an ominous red telephone button that called the president (Johnson aide George Christian recalled a similar detail in his 1970 book). Aide Peter Benchley recalled that any connection to Johnson was called the "POTUS" line, and that no doubt helped enshroud the acronym in myth.

Nixon carried it on. In 1996, William Safire fondly recalled seeing POTUS on a Nixon White House telephone button in the '60s and noted aides' reverent POTUS murmurs. And Safire was by no means a passive observer of the POTUS boom: In his 1977 White House novel, Full Disclosure, he had a president's girlfriend use the nickname. POTUS also popped up in Secret Service records in the 1960s, and Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield told a presidential library interviewer that the Secret Service used the term for Nixon.

By the Reagan era in the '80s, the Washington Post said both POTUS and FLOTUS (first lady of the United States) were code names for the Reagans. But it appears that Secret Service code names (like Rawhide for Reagan) were more common, and many official schedules use more formal notes (like "President Carter" or "the President") instead. So it's more likely White House staff and the media made POTUS the popular term it is today.

Twitter, like the telegraph, rewards brevity

Over the years, POTUS has steadily gained mystique and esteem — and an ever-expanding group of absurd unofficial acronyms alongside it, like SLOTUS (second lady of the United States, for the Vice President's wife) or FDOTUS (first dog of the United States, for Bo Obama). Even President Obama himself has joked that Bill Clinton may need to invent a new acronym should Hillary Clinton be elected president.

But POTUS is still the acronym in chief. In a way, the presidential Twitter handle, which will be passed on to President Obama's successor, brings POTUS full circle. After all, the reason it was chosen for Twitter is the same reason it was used in telegraphs: POTUS is short and sweet.