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Did it exist before The Telephone - has it always been associated with 'sales'?

Here is an example.

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Is there something we're missing? I'll take a challenge. Wild-goose chase? Not so much. – Callithumpian Mar 23 '11 at 12:19
@ArthurRex: I see only a gerund. If that is a dangling participle, it must be too tiny to discern. – Cerberus Mar 23 '11 at 19:48
Touche, my three headed friend....In reference: dangling participle – user5531 Mar 24 '11 at 16:28
up vote 14 down vote accepted

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:

. . . I do need insurance.' He signed up forthwith for five thousand dollars. "I suppose you might call that opportunity a 'hunch.' I had no introduction to the man, no personal link of any kind. It was a cold call, and it won.

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:

I also had visitors still higher up in the scale of nature. Some Indians, from the Reservation near by, paid me a cold call. These did not come to 'sugar,' reconnoitring perhaps for whisky.

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:

The same feeling forbade to wait the result of a cold call for Colonel J. W. Adams's services ; and the staff of the army was completed before that veteran could recal his leave of absence on account of sickness.

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.

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cold call verb and noun (Business World) In marketing jargon, transitive verb: To make an unsolicited telephone call or visit to (a prospective customer) as a way of selling a product. noun: A marketing call on a person who has not previously expressed any interest in the product. Also as an action noun cold calling. Etymology: Formed by compounding: the call, whether by telephone or in person, is made cold, without any previous warm-up, or preparation of the ground. History and Usage: The term was first used in the early seventies as a more jargony equivalent for 'door-to-door selling' (and at that time cold calling was mostly done door-to-door); in the eighties the rise of telemarketing (see tele-) and the emphasis on 'hard sell' has meant a huge increase in cold calling by telephone.

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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.

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This phrasing is also used when referring to a "cold case" or the "Cold War." – MrHen Mar 22 '11 at 20:45
+1 jargon hot/warm/cold for sales leads. I think this is the correct answer. – nohat Mar 23 '11 at 20:11

Here's an interesting reference from the A Dictionary of Accounting (Oxford University Press)1 :

cold calling : A method of selling a product or service in which a sales representative makes calls, door-to-door, by post, or by telephone, to people who have not previously shown any interest in the product or service. In the UK, the selling of investments by cold calling is regulated by the Financial Services Act 1986.

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.

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