By Lily Rothman
Ever since Charles Lindbergh was proclaimed the Man of the Year for 1927 in the Jan. 2, 1928, issue, TIME magazine has annually designated one man, woman, couple or concept that had the most influence on the world during the previous 12 months.
But, according to a letter to readers that appeared in 1944’s edition (Man of the Year: Dwight Eisenhower), it all started by accident.
Here’s what happened: New Year’s week of 1928 had been a string of slow news days. As the magazine’s publication date approached, the editors were at a loss over whom to put on the cover. “No one had done anything newsworthy enough to put his picture on TIME’s cover, so somebody suggested we stop looking for a Man of the Week and pick a Man of the Year,” wrote then-publisher P.I. Prentice in the Jan. 1, 1945, issue. “This was an easy choice: Charles Augustus Lindbergh, who had soloed the Atlantic in only 33 hours and 39 minutes, was the hero of 1927.” (It was also the case, as current Deputy Managing Editor Radhika Jones pointed out recently, that Lindbergh had not been on the cover yet, an oversight that needed rectifying.)
The editors apparently didn’t think that naming Lindbergh Man of the Year would be particularly noteworthy — in fact, the actual article about him is fairly brief and not even easy to find within the magazine. It begins thus:
Height: 6 ft. 2 inches.
Feet: Large. When he arrived at the Embassy in France no shoes big enough were handy.
Habits: Smokes not; drinks not. Does not gamble. Eats a thorough-going breakfast. Prefers light luncheon and dinner when permitted. Avoids rich dishes. Likes sweets.
Barely two columns, it goes on to list where he’s flown and ends on the fact that his mother always thought he was “the world’s greatest.” And yet, the response was enthusiastic enough that the editors decided to do it again a year later, naming Walter P. Chrysler “the outstanding businessman of the year” and putting him on 1929’s first cover. (This even though one reader had chided the magazine about Lindbergh’s cover story, for seeming to have made fun of his feet; “there will never be a man on your staff big enough to ‘stand in Lindy’s shoes’!,” she wrote.)
In the years since, though the franchise has been constant, it has evolved considerably. The first Woman of the Year belonged to 1936 (Wallis Simpson), but the magazine didn’t switch to consistent use of the gender-neutral “Person of the Year” till 1999 (Jeff Bezos). The first multi-person choice was 1937’s — Gen. and Mme. Chiang Kai-shek were “Man & Wife of the Year” — and the first symbol was 1950’s choice of “the American Fighting-man.” The first inanimate object chosen was 1982’s Machine of the Year, the personal computer. And of course You won in 2006.
This week, that history continues with the Ebola Fighters. Read all about TIME’s latest choice here.
Correction: The original version of this article misstated which years Wallis Simpson and Gen. and Mme. Chiang Kai-shek were selected as Persons of the Year. They were chosen for 1936 and 1937, respectively, not 1937 and 1938.