origin of ‘deadline’ (time limit)


deadline – the prison-pen at Millen – Pictorial History of the Civil War – 1874

the prison-pen at Millen

This pen was built of large logs driven in the ground, with sentry posts on the top, at short intervals. No shelter whatsoever was afforded the prisoners, and they were compelled to burrow in the earth, to avoid the scorching sun or the biting frost, for their captors robbed them of most of their clothing, with all their money, watches, et cetera. The ground inclosed within the stockade was about three hundred feet square, and at times it was crowded with the suffering captives. Just inside of the palisades was a light rail fence, which marked the “dead line,” or a boundary beyond which no prisoner was allowed to pass, under penalty of death from the bullet of a guardsman.

illustration and note from Pictorial History of the Civil War in the United States of America (1874 edition), by the American historian Benson John Lossing (1813-91)



The noun deadline denotes the latest time or date by which something should be completed.

Its original sense, during the American Civil War (1861-65), was a line drawn around a camp beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot. A striking description is found in The Altoona Tribune (Altoona, Pennsylvania) of 24th September 1864, which published extracts from the statement made by Prescott Tracey, a private in the Union Army, who had been imprisoned at Andersonville, Georgia:

The prison is an open space, sloping on both sides, originally 17 acres, now 25 acres, in the shape of a parallelogram, without trees or shelter of any kind. The soil is sand over a bottom of clay. The fence is made of upright trunks of trees about twenty feet high, near the top of which are small platforms, where the guards are stationed. Twenty feet inside and parallel to the fence is a light railing, forming the “dead line,” beyond which the projection of a foot or finger is sure to bring the deadly bullet of the sentinel. […]
[…] The “dead-line” bullet, already referred to, spared no offender. One poor fellow, just from Sherman’s army, his name was Roberts, was trying to wash his face near the “dead line” railing, when he slipped on the clayey bottom, and fell with his head just outside the fatal border. We shouted to him, but it was too late—“another guard would have a furlough,” the men said. It was a common belief among our men, arising from statements made by the guard, that General Winder, in command, issued an order that any one of the guard who should shoot a Yankee outside of the “dead-line” should have a months [sic] furlough, but there probably was no truth in this. About two a day were thus shot, some being cases of suicide, brought on by mental depression of physical misery, the poor fellows throwing themselves or madly rushing outside the “line.”


The term was soon used figuratively. In a letter published in The Athens Post (Athens, Tennessee) of 17th July 1863, an inhabitant of the town of Pikeville, in Sequatchie, Tennessee, compared “being on the wrong side of the line [i.e. of the front line]” to being on the wrong side of the deadline (General Bragg served in the Confederate Army):

It is known, I suppose, over your way, that Gen. Bragg’s army has fallen back, and you may believe that we, here in Sequatchie, feel a little like we had been left on the wrong side of the dead line.

The correspondent among the North Carolina soldiers for the Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, North Carolina) of 19th October 1863 also used deadline figuratively:

Have your eyes in your various peregrinations ever fallen upon the symmetrical dimensions of a Confederate saddle? Imagine two pieces of rough pine connected by two small half hoops, and you have it. […] These saddles are undoubtedly the greatest imposition of the war. Pay $1000 for a horse and put this machine on his back, mount and start, and in ten days your horse is pronounced unfit for service and sent to the “dead line,” to go the way of all the earth, and the poor private is made to shoulder his effects and keep up with the Reg’t Co. Q., hooted at by men high in authority, and called coward and skulker.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition – 1989), the current sense time limit of deadline originated in newspaper circles, where the term designates a time by which material has to be ready for inclusion in a particular issue of a publication. It is true that deadline is used in this particular sense. For example, The Rotarian: Original Organ of the International Association of Rotary Clubs (Houston, Texas) of June 1913 published Some Suggestions for Clubs That Want to Let Their Light Shine: Publicity, How to Get It, in which a certain J. C. Burton gave advice on how to get a story accepted by a newspaper; one of his recommendations was:

Get your story in early. Don’t wait until the “dead line” when the local room is in chaos. It is liable to be forgotten and abandoned when a big murder story breaks.

deadline - illustration for Publicity, How to Get It - The Rotarian - June 1913

illustration for Publicity, How to Get ItThe Rotarian – June 1913


However, the use of deadline in its current sense does not seem to have originally been peculiar to journalists. The Fort Worth Daily Gazette (Fort Worth, Texas) of 29th March 1887 published an article about the fact that “the act of the Congress of the United States known as the ‘interstate commerce law’ is intended to prohibit the use of inter-state passes, except by officers and employees of railway companies […]. On and after April 1, 1887, no inter-state passes of any other character or description will be recognized by conductors or other officers of the Texas and Pacific Railway”:

Some days ago the Atchison took a new departure in the matter of collecting fares, and the Railroad Gazette says in regard to it: “A newspaper item says the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Road’s new plan of having train-collectors, whose sole duty is to collect tickets and fares (and passes until the dead line of April 5 [misprint for April 1] is reached) has resulted in a large increase of receipts.”

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