The History Behind TIME Choosing President-Elects as Person of the Year

4 minute read

TIME’s 2020 Person of the Year choice of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris keeps with tradition—and breaks new ground.

The selection of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris marks the first time a President-elect and Vice President-elect have appeared together on a Person of the Year cover. Harris is the first Vice President-elect to be named a Person of the Year. Harris is also the first Black person, first woman and first Asian-American to hold the office of Vice President.

The 2020 choice is also the latest in a nearly nine-decade long tradition of naming a president-elect as Person of the Year. (Until 1999, the title was called “Man of the Year.”)

The first President to be named Person of the Year was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when TIME named him the 1932 Man of the Year for his vision of a New Deal to bring America out of the Great Depression. The man who served more terms than any other U.S. President has also been designated TIME’s Person of the Year more than any other President, having been given the recognition three times in total. First, for the year 1934, a rare example in the post-Civil War era of the incumbent’s party gaining seats in both the House and the Senate in a midterm election, and second for the year 1941, for FDR’s leadership after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry in World War II.

Since then, eight other men have been named TIME’s Person of the Year after winning their first presidential election: Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson—both of whom had already been in the job since they succeeded Presidents who died in office—Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Since the franchise began, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Gerald Ford are the only Presidents not recognized as Person of the Year.

Winning a presidential election for the first time does not guarantee one will be named Person of the Year.

Dwight D. Eisenhower won his first presidential election in a landslide in 1952, but that year’s title went to Queen Elizabeth II, named “Woman of the Year” for ascending to the throne that February at the age of 25. TIME named Eisenhower the 1959 Man of the Year, for being a popular two-term President, but it wasn’t his first time holding the title; back when he was a general, he was the 1944 Man of the Year for his leading role in D-Day. Truman was also the 1945 Man of the Year after succeeding FDR, and the magazine nicknamed him “Man of the Atomic Year” because of his decision to drop the first atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When TIME named John F. Kennedy the 1961 Man of the Year after his first year in office rather than 1960, the year he was elected, the newsroom received an avalanche of mail critical of Pietro Annigoni’s serious portrait of a weary-looking President. The cover surprised readers who were accustomed to seeing TIME and LIFE photos of a beaming youthful “Camelot”—even JFK’s own daughter Caroline, who asked her father, “Daddy, where did you get those spooky eyes?”

TIME named the Apollo 8 astronauts, the first humans to orbit the Earth’s Moon, the 1968 Men of the Year, instead of Richard Nixon, who won the presidency that year. Nixon became the first public figure to be named a Person of the Year two years in a row, holding the recognition for 1971 for announcing the opening talks with China, and for 1972, sharing the recognition with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger after Nixon’s historic visit to China and the developing Watergate scandal. Both covers featured sculptures of the President, as opposed to a painting or a photographic portrait.

And the “Endangered Earth” was Planet of the Year for 1988, the year George H.W. Bush was elected President. Bush received the recognition for the year 1990, which was framed as “Men of the Year,” to represent the “two policy faces” that he projected to the world.

This article is part of TIME’s 2020 Person of the Year issue. Read more and sign up for the Inside TIME newsletter to be among the first to see our cover every week.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at