Every year, TIME names the person (or people) who wielded the most influence in the previous 12 months. This year, TIME’s editors decided on President-elect Donald Trump.
Each year, readers have questions about how the Person of the Year was chosen. Here’s what you need to know about the process.
When did Person of the Year start?
Though the issue has become a signature feature for TIME, it started as a whim. Over the week of New Year’s Day in 1928, the editors of the magazine struggled to find someone to write about during a slow news period—so they decided to feature one person who had been influential the year before. “This was an easy choice,” wrote then-publisher P.I. Prentice in a 1945, issue looking back on the decision. “Charles Augustus Lindbergh, who had soloed the Atlantic in only 33 hours and 39 minutes, was the hero of 1927.” As a bonus, he hadn’t appeared on the cover before, and this rectified that oversight. The cover line dubbed him “The Man of the Year” and a tradition was born. Though Wallis Simpson became the first “Woman of the Year” in 1937, the title did not become gender neutral until 1999.
What does it mean to be Person of the Year?
The title goes to “the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse,” as former Managing Editor Walter Isaacson wrote in the 1998 issue. That means the person is not necessarily a hero—Adolf Hitler, for example, was Person of the Year in 1938, with a cover showing him playing a ghastly organ and a cover line touting, “From the unholy organist, a hymn of hate.” Stalin got the nod twice, while the selection of Iran’s Ayatullah Khomeini in 1979, when the magazine called him “the mystic who lit the fires of hatred.” And some choices have been ambiguous; take Newt Gingrich, who was a hero to some and a menace to others.
How secretive is the process?
Even within the newsroom, very few people know who the Person of the Year or runners-up will be. The announcement is made publicly before the issue goes to the printers, to make sure no leaks ruin the surprise.
What’s the deal with the reader’s choice poll?
While TIME’s editors make the final decision about who is the Person of the Year, the magazine also invites readers to weigh in on who they think has earned the title. The online poll is a valuable way to see who Internet denizens think has most affected their lives. In early years, before the Internet, readers were invited to weigh in by mail, with their suggestions often filling the letters-to-the-editor page in the weeks before the announcement.
Is it always an actual person?
Sometimes, TIME has chosen to highlight the influence of an object (like the personal computer in 1982) or an archetype (like the protester in 2011). In hindsight, 1982 might have been a good time to name Steve Jobs Person of the Year, a title he never won; but ideally these non-conventional choices are meant to capture a movement that’s bigger than any one individual.
Why have most of the winners been men?
Last year, Angela Merkel became only the fourth woman to hold the Person of the Year cover alone. (Women who have made the cover as part of a group include Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her husband as “Man and Wife of the Year” in 1937, Melinda Gates alongside her husband and Bono in 2005, and “American Women,” collectively, in 1975.) “It seems like too few women, over the course of nearly nine decades,” former Deputy Editor Radhika Jones wrote in 2013. “You can count them on two hands. But it’s a fair reminder that for much of TIME’s history, women seldom held the kinds of positions of power that would set them up for Man of the Year status … The flip side of that observation—that men have tended to hold positions of power—is that franchises like Person of the Year have tended to privilege roles traditionally held by men.”