A collection of 19th-century documents newly acquired by The Associated Press shows that the world's largest newsgathering organization traces its origins to 1846, two years earlier than traditionally accepted by journalism historians and the AP itself.
The documents were provided to the AP's corporate archives by Brewster Yale Beach, a great-great-grandson of Moses Yale Beach, the second owner-publisher of the original New York Sun and the driving force in creating the alliance of newspapers sharing news dispatches that became known as The Associated Press.
Those agreements evolved into the AP that today has 4,000 employees and delivers news around the clock to more than 130 countries and 1 billion readers, listeners and viewers.
Historically, the AP has dated its origins to a meeting of New York City publishers at the Sun office in May 1848. According to the Beach documents, the inaugural meeting took place two years earlier, with the agreement to share news from the war with Mexico.
"These documents are a significant discovery, not only for the historical record of The Associated Press but because they also reaffirm the AP's fundamental role, covering the news in war and peace, as envisioned by the member newspapers that created it," said Tom Curley, AP's president and CEO.
For scholars of the era, they clarify what historian Richard Schwarzlose called "maddeningly imprecise" and conflicting information about the AP's origins.
Schwarzlose, author of the 1989 book "The Nation's Newsbrokers," was among historians who had accepted the 1848 date, as was former AP executive Oliver Gramling, whose 1940 book, "AP: The Story of News," has served the AP as its official history.
The key document in the Beach collection is a June 1872 memorandum by Moses Yale Beach's son, Moses Sperry Beach.
In the memorandum, Moses Sperry Beach describes an 1846 arrangement whereby Mexican war reports arriving at Mobile, Ala., by boat were rushed by special pony express to Montgomery, then 700 miles by U.S. mail stagecoach to the southern terminus of the telegraph near Richmond, Va. That express gave the Sun an edge of 24 hours or more on papers using the regular mail.
But Moses Yale Beach relinquished that advantage by inviting other New York publishers to join the Sun in a cooperative venture. Five papers joined in the agreement: the Sun, the Journal of Commerce, the Courier and Enquirer, the Herald and the Express.
The occasion for his son's memorandum, notes on the back of it indicate, was the death of James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant publisher of the New York Herald. Bennett's boast of having effected the founding of the AP, dating it to 1848, had gained credence through repetition.
In an interview in the New York World of Jan. 20, 1884, Moses Sperry Beach said the Mexican War express "was the beginning of The Associated Press. It all grew out of this."
Moses Yale Beach's decision to share news with rivals was "neither altruistic nor cost-driven," but recognized that "nothing could compete with the telegraph for speed, and all newspapers, rich or poor, would now be on a par," historian Menahem Blondheim said.
Blondheim first cited the Beach documents as evidence of the AP's 1846 origins in his 1994 book "News Over The Wires." Blondheim's correction of AP's founding date, tucked into the narrative, received little attention.
Brewster Yale Beach, an 80-year-old Episcopal priest and Jungian psychotherapist who lives in Millbrook, N.Y., said recently that he "never really got serious" about the family papers until AP executives expressed interest in acquiring them for the news agency's corporate archives.
"I'm most happy that the telling letter of Moses Yale didn't get lost in the shuffle down the decades and that it is safely in AP's hands," he said.
The 1872 memorandum is the most important of the 11 items in the collection, said Valerie Komor, director of the AP archives.
"Most journalism historians have accepted the 1848 date, based on evidence at hand. But the Beach memorandum allows us to accept with confidence an 1846 dating for the AP's beginnings," Komor said.
Compared to the newspapers it served, the early AP remained a low-profile organization. Yet as the first news organization to operate on a national scale, its influence was profound from the beginning.
"Through the newspapers, it connected all Americans by a common stream of instantaneous information, fostering a national outlook. It represented one of the most powerful integrating forces shaping American society in the modern era," said Blondheim, a professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and currently visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The date change comes as AP continues organizing long-neglected historical corporate records following its 2004 move from Rockefeller Plaza, its home for 67 years, to a new world headquarters on Manhattan's west side.
A team of nearly 20 writers, editors and researchers is working on a new history of the AP, updating Gramling's "AP: The Story of News."
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