• History
  • Media

Here’s the History of TIME’s Person of the Year Franchise

4 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Ever since Charles Lindbergh was proclaimed Man of the Year for 1927 in the Jan. 2, 1928, issue, TIME magazine has annually selected what is now known as the Person of the Year — the man, woman, group or concept that had the most influence on the world during the previous 12 months. In 2021, TIME’s editors chose Elon Musk

But, according to a letter to readers that appeared in the 1944 edition (Man of the Year: Dwight Eisenhower), TIME’s Person of the Year franchise all started by accident.

Here’s what happened: New Year’s week of 1928 had been a string of slow news days. In those years, TIME’s cover — which had only recently acquired its signature red border — was dedicated almost exclusively to portraiture, but there was nobody whose face seemed to fit the week’s events. As the publication date approached, the editors were at a loss. “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 that Lindbergh had not been on the cover yet, an oversight that needed rectifying. The week that news of Lindbergh’s flight was reported, the TIME cover featured an old picture of King George V & Queen Mary in masquerade costumes.)

See Every Person Of The Year Cover Ever

Photograph by Mark Mahaney for TIME
Portrait by Jason Seiler for TIME
Greta Thunberg Time Person of the Year Cover
Photograph by Evgenia Arbugaeva for TIME
2018: The GuardiansPhotographs by Moises Saman-Magnum Photos for TIME
TIME Person of the Year 2017: The Silence BreakersBilly & Hells for TIME
2016: Donald Trump person of the year
2016: Donald TrumpTIME
TIME person of the year angela merkel 2015
2015: Angela MerkelTIME
TIME Person of the Year 2014 Magazine Cover: The Ebola Fighters 141222
2014: The Ebola FightersTIME
2013: Pope Francis
2013: Pope FrancisTIME
2012: Barack Obama
2012: President Barack ObamaTIME
2011: The Protester
2011: The ProtesterTIME
2010: Mark Zuckerberg
2010: Mark Zuckerberg TIME
2009: Ben Bernanke TIME
2008: Barack Obama
2008: President Barack ObamaTIME
2007: Vladimir Putin
2007: Vladimir PutinTIME
2006: YouTIME
2005: The Good Samaritans: Bill Gates, Bono, Melinda Gates
2005: The Good Samaritans: Bill Gates, Bono, Melinda GatesTIME
2004: President George W. Bush
2004: President George W. BushTIME
2003: The American Soldier
2003: The American SoldierTIME
2002: The Whistleblowers
2002: The Whistleblowers: Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley and Sherron Watkins TIME
2001: Rudy Giuliani
2001: Rudy Giuliani TIME
2000: President George W. Bush
2000: President George W. BushTIME
1999: Jeff Bezos
1999: Jeff BezosTIME
1998: Kenneth Starr ad Bill Clinton
1998: Kenneth Starr and Bill ClintonTIME
1997: Andrew Grove
1997: Andrew GroveTIME
1996: Dr. David HoTIME
1995: Newt GingrichTIME
1994: Pope John Paul II
1994: Pope John Paul IITIME
1993: The Peacemakers: Yitzhak Rabin, Nelson Mandela, F.W. De Klerk, Yasser ArafatTIME
TIME COVERS - THE 90'S
1992: President Bill ClintonTIME
1991: Ted Turner
1991: Ted TurnerTIME
1990: President George H.W. BushTIME
1989: Mikhail Gorbachev
1989: Mikhail GorbachevTIME
1988: Endangered EarthTIME
1987: Mikhail Gorbachev
1987: Mikhail GorbachevTIME
1986: Corazon Aquino
1986: Corazon AquinoTIME
1985: Deng Xiaoping
1985: Deng XiaopingTIME
1984: Peter Ueberroth
1984: Peter UeberrothTIME
1983: President Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov
1983: President Ronald Reagan and Yuri AndropovTIME
1982: The ComputerTIME
1981: Lech Wa??sa
1981: Lech Wa??sa TIME
1980: President Ronald Reagan
1980: President Ronald ReaganTIME
1979: Ayatollah Khomeini
1979: Ayatollah KhomeiniTIME
1978: Deng Xiaoping
1978: Deng XiaopingTIME
1977: Anwar Sadat
1977: Anwar SadatTIME
1976: President Jimmy CarterTIME
1975: American Women
1975: American WomenTIME
1974: King FaisalTIME
1973: John Sirica
1973: John SiricaTIME
1972: President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger
1972: President Richard Nixon and Henry KissingerTIME
1971: President Richard Nixon
1971: President Richard NixonTIME
1970: Willy Brandt
1970: Willy BrandtTIME
1969: The Middle Americans
1969: The Middle AmericansTIME
1968: The Apollo 8 astronauts
1968: The Apollo 8 AstronautsTIME
1967: President Lyndon B. Johnson
1967: President Lyndon B. JohnsonTIME
1966: Men and Women 25 and UnderTIME
1965: William Westmoreland
1965: William WestmorelandTIME
1964: Lyndon B. Johnson
1964: Lyndon B. JohnsonTIME
1963: Martin Luther King, Jr.
1963: Martin Luther King, Jr.TIME
1962: Pope John XXIII
1962: Pope John XXIIITIME
1961: President John F. Kennedy
1961: President John F. KennedyTIME
1960: U.S. Scientists
1960: U.S. ScientistsTIME
1959: President Dwight D. Eisenhower
1959: President Dwight D. EisenhowerTIME
1958: Charles de Gaulle
1958: Charles de GaulleTIME
1957: Nikita Khrushchev
1957: Nikita KhrushchevTIME
1956: The Hungarian Freedom FighterTIME
1955: Harlow Curtice
1955: Harlow CurticeTIME
1954: John Foster Dulles
1954: John Foster DullesTIME
1953: Konrad Adenauer
1953: Konrad AdenauerTIME
1952: Queen Elizabeth II
1952: Queen Elizabeth IITIME
1951: Mohammad Mossadegh
1951: Mohammad MossadeghTIME
1950: The American Fighting Man
1950: The American Fighting Man TIME
1949: Winston Churchill
1949: Winston ChurchillTIME
1948: President Harry S. Truman
1948: President Harry S. TrumanTIME
1947: George MarshallTIME
1946: James F. Byrnes
1946: James F. ByrnesTIME
1945: President Harry S. Truman
1945: President Harry S. TrumanTIME
1944: Dwight D. Eisenhower
1944: Dwight D. EisenhowerTIME
1943: George Marshall
1943: George MarshallTIME
1942: Joseph Stalin
1942: Joseph StalinTIME
1941: President Franklin D. Roosevelt
1941: President Franklin D. RooseveltTIME
1940: Winston Churchill
1940: Winston ChurchillTIME
1939: Joseph Stalin
1939: Joseph StalinTIME
1938: Adolf Hitler
1938: Adolf HitlerTIME
1937: Chiang Kai-shek and Soong May-ling
1937: Chiang Kai-shek and Soong May-lingTIME
1936: Wallis Simpson
1936: Wallis SimpsonTIME
1935: Haile Selassie
1935: Haile SelassieTIME
1934: President Franklin D. Roosevelt
1934: President Franklin D. RooseveltTIME
1933: Hugh S. Johnson
1933: Hugh S. JohnsonTIME
1932: Franklin D. Roosevelt
1932: Franklin D. RooseveltTIME
1931: Pierre Laval
1931: Pierre LavalTIME
1930: Mahatma Gandhi
1930: Mahatma GandhiTIME
1929: Owen D. Young
1929: Owen D. YoungTIME
1928: Walter Chrysler
1928: Walter ChryslerTIME
TIME Man of the Year 1927: Charles Lindbergh
1927: Charles LindberghTIME

The editors apparently didn’t think that naming Lindbergh as TIME’s Person 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.

Age: 25.

Eyes: Blue.

Cheeks: Pink.

Hair: Sandy.

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.

TIME Man of the Year 1927: Charles Lindbergh
The response to TIME naming Charles Lindbergh its Man of the Year for 1927 prompted the magazine to start the franchise we know today as Person of the Year.TIME

Barely two columns, the article 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 to making him Person of the Year 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.

1928: Walter Chrysler
1928: Walter ChryslerTIME

“The Man of the Year idea caught on with a bang and, somewhat surprised, we decided to make it an annual event,” Prentice wrote in 1945. “The choice is in no way an accolade, nor a Nobel Prize for doing good. Nor is it a moral judgment. (Al Capone was runner-up in riotous, bootleg 1928.) The two criteria are always these: who had the biggest rise in fame; and who did the most to change the news for better (like Stalin in 1942) or for worse (like Stalin in 1939, when his flop to Hitler’s side unleashed this worldwide war).”

1939: Joseph Stalin
1939: Joseph StalinTIME

In the years since TIME first began its Person of the Year franchise, it has evolved considerably.

The first Woman of the Year belonged to 1936 (Wallis Simpson), but TIME didn’t switch to consistent use of the gender-neutral “Person of the Year” till 1999 (Jeff Bezos).

WALLIS SIMPSON: First woman Person of the Year for TIME Magazine, 1937.
WALLIS SIMPSON became TIME magazine's first female Person of the Year for 1936.Dorothy Wilding—TIME Magazine

Not every Person of the Year has wielded positive influence; perhaps most notably, 1938’s Man of the Year was Adolf Hitler, with the added ominous prediction that he “may make 1939 a year to be remembered.” The first multi-person choice was 1937’s — Gen. and Mme. Chiang Kai-shek were “Man & Wife of the Year” — and the first symbolic group 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 were Person of the Year in 2006. In 2018, TIME’s editors picked the Guardians—Jamal Khashoggi, the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Md., Maria Ressa, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

2006: YouTIME

A version of this piece first appeared in TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year coverage.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com