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The Evolution of Secret Presidential Recordings

Updated on April 14, 2012

Although President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal publicized the existence of Presidential secret recordings, he surely wasn’t the first President to implement these recordings. The earliest known secret recording was carried on by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was these early Presidents that set the course for the presence of secret recordings in the White House. Preservation of historical accuracy has been determined as the main reason why majority of Presidents enlisted secret recordings, for others, it was for personal reasons such as footage for memoirs.

In response to being misquoted by the New York Times in January of 1939, Roosevelt had his stenographer, Henry Kannee, make sure an incident like this was not repeated. Majority of the recordings were held in the Oval Office between August 23, 1940 and November 8, 1940. The eight hours of preserved recordings are of low quality with static, feedback, and other such nuisances – showing recording technology in its early stages. The recording device was activated by a manual on and off switch, which created excessive recordings of miscellaneous conversations and silence.

The Tycoon Soundscriber machine was the recording device of choice during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. Charles Willis, assistant to the Chief of Staff, proposed the idea of audio recordings to the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), and the recording device was suggested by Lieutenant Colonel George McNally, Commander of WHCA. Majority of the recordings were held in the Oval Office between October 12, 1953 and December 9, 1958 – although the tapes have ‘allegedly’ not been preserved. As with Roosevelt’s recording device, Eisenhower’s Tycoon Soundscriber was activated by an on and off switch located in the kneewell of his desk.

John F. Kennedy approached Secret Service Agent Robert Bouck to install secret recordings in 1962. The Cabinet Room, Oval Office, and a study/library in the Mansion were all to be accessible for recordings. Bouck used the Tandberg reel-to-reel tape recorders to handle these secret recordings. There was a Dictaphone connected to a telephone in the Oval Office and a telephone in Kennedy’s bedroom. Similar to Roosevelt’s and Eisenhower’s recording devices, Kennedy could activate the recordings with an on and off button. But unlike the other two Presidents, access to activating the recordings was extended to his private secretary, Evelyn Lincoln.

Lyndon B. Johnson was more than familiar with recordings when he became President. While in the senate Johnson had his chief aide, Walter Jenkins, transcribe conversations that Jenkins monitored. Johnson used an Edison Voicewriter Recorder while Vice-President and used Kennedy’s Dictaphone system in the Oval Office when he became President. A conventional reel-to-reel analog recording system was installed by the WHCA in 1968, under Johnson’s direction. Under Johnson’s presidency, over 643 hours of recordings were made.

And last but not least, the individual that blew the top off the existence of secret recordings was President Nixon. Recordings were done throughout the White House, Oval Office, Old Executive Office Building, Cabinet Room and Camp David. But unlike the prior Presidents’ recording devices, Nixon’s recordings were voice activated (which will hurt him later) and continued recording for fifteen to thirty seconds after the President left the room. Recordings were conducted between February 16, 1971 and July 18, 1973.

It is safe to assume that secret recordings are currently practiced in the White House, but it makes one wonder what advancements are being used to conduct recordings as of today? And what scandalous recordings have or will be destroyed unknowingly to the rest of us?

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