Puzzle History: The first NYT crossword

[A sculpture masquerading as a stack of newspapers.]

I like to think of December as Crossword History Month. It’s rather fitting, seeing as the anniversary of the crossword is celebrated on December 21. (It’ll be 102 this year!)

So it’s only appropriate that David Steinberg, friend of the blog and mastermind of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, recently published some newly revealed information about another intriguing part of crossword history: the first crossword puzzle published by The New York Times.

On February 15, 1942, a puzzle by Charles Erlenkotter was the very first, starting a long tradition of proud puzzlehood for the Times. (He ended up having eight puzzles featured in the New York Times.) His puzzles were also published by The Washington Post, The New York Herald Tribune, and Simon & Schuster, among many others. In fact, dozens of puzzles are credited to Mr. Erlenkotter.

All of the information released by David gels nicely with the research I did for our Crossword History timeline. In a memo dated December 18, 1941, an editor for the New York Times conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world, and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts.

David and his contact Donald Erlenkotter, grandnephew of Charles, theorize that Margaret Farrar was behind choosing Erlenkotter’s puzzle. When Farrar was recruited to be the first puzzle editor for the Times, she wouldn’t have been able to use one of her own puzzles as the inaugural puzzle for the newspaper, since that would conflict with her work with Simon & Schuster.

But no doubt Charles had heard of her through her S&S work, contacted her with his own puzzles, and voila! He becomes the first of many constructors to test the puzzly mettle of crossword fans for decades to come!

I’ve long said that one of the most amazing things about the Internet is that connections can now be made that no other technology would’ve allowed for, and this is one more example. Due diligence, keen research, marvelous resources, and the ability to reach out to others with similar interests has added one more vibrant piece to the mosaic of puzzle history.

It’s moments like this that make me the history buff I am.


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