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Walter P. Phillips (1846 in Grafton, Massachusetts – 1920), was a journalist, telegraph operator, and businessman who invented the Phillips Code. He later became the head of the United Press. The most well known remnants of the Phillips Code are the terms POTUS and SCOTUS.


Early lifeEdit

Walter Polk Phillips was born in Grafton, Massachusetts on June 14, 1846. He was the youngest of three children of Andrew S. and Roxanna M. Phillips. Little is known about his early years, but he did not have much schooling. He left school at age twelve and went to work on a farm.[1] Several years later, in 1861, he was hired by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in Providence as a messenger. While living in Providence, he married Francena A Capron on 15 April 1866. They had a son Albert C. Phillips, born on 4 September 1871.

Early careerEdit

Phillips worked his way up in the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and became known as an "expert telegrapher," respected for his speed in sending and receiving messages.[2] By 1868, he was working for the Western Union Telegraph office in Providence, where his skill caught the attention of Samuel F. B. Morse. Phillips was the winner of several telegraphy contests; in one contest, he accurately transcribed more than 2700 words in one hour, earning him a personal letter from Morse, along with a gift; the letter praised Phillips for his "dexterity" in the use of Morse code as well as his "faultless manner of recording" messages.[3] In 1870, he became involved in journalism. He was named the Managing Editor of the Providence Morning Herald, where he worked for two years. He subsequently became editor of the Providence Morning Star.[4] In 1871, he decided to start a newspaper in Attleborough, Massachusetts, the place where his wife was born. That newspaper, the Attleborough Chronicle, debuted on 3 February 1872. A year later, Phillips sold it for $5000.[5] Later in 1873, he and his family moved to New York, where he was a reporter for the New York Sun, before being hired by the Associated Press to work in their New York Office.[6]

Later careerEdit

Phillips worked for the Associated Press from 1875 to 1879, serving as the New York Bureau's Assistant General Manager. Most sources say that it was during this period of time (circa 1879) that he created what came to be known as the Phillips Code. It had become clear to him, as a veteran telegrapher and journalist, that certain words were frequently used in news dispatches; he devised a special system of abbreviations that would make sending and receiving news stories much easier. The Phillips code quickly became popular with newspaper telegraphers, and it soon became the standard at newspapers of that era.[7] Also during this time, in July 1876, Phillips released a work of humor and social commentary, under the pen name of John Oakum. Newspapers described it as "a collection of stories, character sketches and paragraphs" based on some of the telegraphers Phillips had known.[8] Meanwhile, Phillips was next promoted to run the Associated Press's Washington DC Bureau, where he remained until 1882. He then returned to New York to take charge of one of Associated Press's newest wire service competitors, United Press. The press of his day referred to Phillips as the United Press's founding general manager, and praised him as "one of the leading news gatherers of the country."[9] By the mid-1890s, Phillips claimed that the United Press had 500 newspapers as subscribers.[10] But during the early 1890s, what had been a business rivalry was deteriorating into charges and counter-charges, as the two wire services battled to keep or acquire clients. The story of what ended up as a bitter legal battle is well told in the book The Nation's Newsbrokers: The Rush to Institution: From 1865 to 1920, by Richard Allen Schwarzlose (Northwestern University Press 1990).

Final yearsEdit

After working for the United Press, Phillips became president of the Columbia Graphophone Company, and resided in Bridgeport, Connecticut.[11] After his wife of many years died in 1914, he relocated to Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts (some sources say Oak Bluffs). In poor health, with his vision failing, he died on 31 January 1920, at age 73. A controversy ensued after his death, when his relatives found he had left his secretary Frances Wood (who had also read to him and helped him stay up to date with the news) the sum of $100,000, making her the "sole legatee in his will."[12]

Selected worksEdit

  • Walter Polk Phillips, Oakum Pickings, New York: W. J. Johnston, 1876 OCLC 2315321.
  • Walter Polk Phillips, Sketches Old and New, J. H. Bunnell & company, 1897 OCLC 428925.


  1. ^ Frederick Clifton Pierce. The History of Grafton, p. 544. Worcester: Chas. Hamilton Press, 1879
  2. ^ "Dots, Dashes and Old Dates." Dallas Morning News, 4 January 1925, Features Section, p.3
  3. ^ "Honor to a Telegrapher." Providence Evening Press, 1 May 1869, p.3
  4. ^ "A Gigantic News Service." Charleston (South Carolina) News & Courier, 10 January 1893, p. 5
  5. ^ John S. Daggett and Amelia D. Daggett Sheffield. A Sketch of the History of Attleborough. Boston: Samuel Usher, 1894
  6. ^ "A Gigantic News Service," p. 5
  7. ^ Clyde Brion Davis. "The Passing of the Brass Pounder." The Reporter, 13 April 1954, p. 41
  8. ^ "New Books." New York Evening Post, 6 November 1876, p. 1
  9. ^ "Walter P. Phillips, Newspaperman, Dies." Boston Globe, 1 February 1920, p. 12
  10. ^ "The General Manager Talks." Denver Post, 30 June 1896, p. 17
  11. ^ "Walter Phillips, Inventor, Dead." Baltimore American, 1 February 1920, p. 1
  12. ^ "Kindness is Repaid." Cincinnati Post, 11 March 1920, p. 6

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