Did it exist before The Telephone - has it always been associated with 'sales'?
Here is an example.
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As jargon for an unsolicited sales pitch, cold call, was used way before the 1970s. The earliest use I can find is from Volume 100 of The American Magazine in 1925:
This snippet is all I can get through Google. If anyone can access this magazine, it would be great to get more context for the quote. The term seems to have been popularized thereafter by salesmen trade publications in the later 1920s.
The phrase itself is most likely older than this. I have two other citations where the meaning of its use is not exactly clear to me. The first is from a collection of field notes taken by British entomolgist Augustus Radcliffe Grote and published in 1877:
This seems to suggest that the phrase may have formed as a variation of the phrase pay a call (in use since the early 1800s and itself a variation of pay a visit--in use since at least the mid-1600s). But it could also just be describing the demeanor of the Indians.
The second is substantially earlier and is from Vol. XII of The Oriental Herald, and Journal of General Literature, 1827:
Again, it is unclear what exactly is meant by cold in this citation. It could mean the call was calculated and unfeeling, but it could also imply that it was unexpected.
My understanding is that it's a "cold" call because often in sales, how interested a party is in the service you're selling is defined in terms of temperature: a "hot" prospect is interested in your product or service and may be ready to close the deal, as compared to a "warm" lead which could be somebody whom you have heard needs your product or services, but you haven't spoken to directly.
When you make a "cold call", you are calling upon someone whom you have never spoken to and know little about, therefore the lead is "cold" -- you don't know if they will be interested or not. Hopefully (for you) the cold call will produce a warm lead, bringing you closer to a sale. But since "cold calling" is less likely to produce a sale than calling someone you know is interested, it's referred to as "cold" whereas the later is "warm" or "hot".
Interesting to see from the other answers that it does predate the telephone, but this makes since as the verb "call" can also mean to visit somebody in person.
Here's an interesting reference from the A Dictionary of Accounting (Oxford University Press)1 :
As you can see in this example, cold-calling encompasses "making a call" whether by mail, door-to-door, or by telephone.
The usage of "calling" as visiting in person definitely pre-dates the usage of "cold-calling" as well.
1 : "cold calling" A Dictionary of Accounting. Ed Jonathan Law and Gary Owen. Oxford University Press, 2010. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.