When was the first interview? And how did interviewing become a standard practice in newsgathering?
Interviews did not become part of journalism until the nineteenth century and then in the United States before anywhere else. The first interview may have been James Gordon Bennett's in New York for the New York Herald—the penny paper he owned, edited, and wrote for—as he played both police detective and reporter in covering the sensational murder of Helen Jewett in 1836. Or it may have been Horace Greeley's interview with the Mormon leader Brigham Young in 1859, printed in his New York Tribune in a question-and-answer format. This was so unusual at the time that Greeley prefaced it with an explanation of what this format meant: "Such is, as nearly as I can recall, the substance of nearly two hours of conversation, wherein much was said incidentally that would not be worth reporting, even if I could remember and reproduce it." It seems clear that Joseph McCullagh was the first reporter to interview a US president for publication: Andrew Johnson, in 1867.
Interviewing spread quickly in the United States. Thompson Cooper, writing for the New York World in 1871, was the first reporter ever, from any country, to interview the Pope. Boasting of the event, as newspapers and later other news media to this day would continue to brag about exclusive interviews, the World crowed, "The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest, as the interview is almost the youngest, of the institutions of
mankind. And they are this morning presented face to face____
The Church and the Press have kissed each other." American reporters would be the first to interview British Cabinet officers and European heads of state and monarchs in the following decades.
British journalists were faster than other Europeans to adopt interviewing but they recognized that the Americans got there first—"The interview," wrote British journalist William Stead in 1902, "was a distinctively American invention." For a long time, interviewing was regarded as undignified. One veteran American reporter recalled in the late nineteenth century how, in the good old days, Washington correspondents were "neither eavesdroppers nor interviewers, but gentlemen, who had a recognized position in society, which they never abused." (This, of course, is nonsense.) He judged interviewing a "pernicious habit" and "a dangerous method of communication between our public men and the people."
Why was interviewing judged to be pernicious? Well, it was just plain unseemly. Louisville, Kentucky, editor Henry Watterson complained of interviewers who undertook "the hold-up in the (railroad) station" and the "ambuscade in the lobby of the hotel"—thereby providing "an added terror to modern travel." And it was so impertinent! "Public men," as the phrase of the day had it, were normally of high status and social pedigree. Journalists were typically far from it. Anyone could become a journalist. But the relative classlessness of America—compared to Europe—made resistance to the interview more feeble in the United States than in the Old World.
In time, interviewing became standard practice for practically all American journalists and for more and more journalists abroad. Very likely its ready acceptance in the United States has to do with the relative egalitarianism of American public life, the relative absence of strongly marked class divisions. Decades later, chewing gum, the Hershey bar, and later still McDonald's and Starbucks would be US agents of informality in other parts of the world, but interviewing was an early American export in the same informalizing direction.
For European critics of interviewing, journalism was a calling to be practiced by people with high literary ambitions. The model form of the newspaper article was an essay—it was normally an analysis of (rather than a report of) current political and economic events. It was more likely to be undertaken from a private study than from a newsroom. Journalists aspired to literary flair and analytical acumen. Interviewing, in contrast, ironed out these high-minded intellectual and literary aspirations as if they were so many wrinkles in a shirt.