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I was just wondering what the origins of "breaking news" or "we broke the story" are.

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

The word breaking in this context means to

undergo a change or enter a new state, in particular ... of news or a scandal [NOAD]

Etymonline has this interesting tidbit to offer about break:

Meaning "to disclose" is from mid-13c.

That meaning is the flip side of the way you used it, and it is a transitive verb: "He broke the news to me that .." I believe that got modified to "breaking news" by extension.

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@Mari-LouA: Thanks. It's possible they updated it over the past five years, and at least equally possible that I may have mistaken a 3 for a 5. I edited to reflect the "new" value. – Robusto May 26 at 21:17

I worked in the Radio and TV industry as an engineer for over 30 years and have followed the evolution of the term "breaking". This is how I see it.

The term "breaking" refers to a technical procedure used inside a broadcasting studio. Also, it's used by CB radio operators when one keys open the microphone and says, "breaker, breaker or 10-50" to announce their entrance on the channel.

In the early days of radio broadcasting, some affiliate stations could interrupt a closed-circuit network feed by "Breaking In", using an electronic video/audio switching system. During normal operation, a station would be feeding out programs, either produced in-house or pulled in from the network main center. Prior to CNN, three major network centers (ABC, CBS, NBC) managed the network feeds, sending out programming like The Nightly News, Sitcoms and movies. When there's a major disaster, for example, the nearest affiliate feeds their story to their network headquarters who would, then, send it back out for distribution. All the affiliates would have access to the disaster story.

The "ABC Special Report" is an example of a true a break in. The announcer would say, "We interrupt our regularly scheduled program...". They don't have to say, "...breaking news" because it would be redundant. Interrupt means the same.

As TV stations grew in number, so did the competition for viewers. Around the late 70's, a new generation of broadcasters had no knowledge of what Breaking meant and some "bean-counter" thought that it would be a great word for alerting the audience. So, it went from being studio engineer jargon to an on-air declaration, so overused that it has lost its sting.

Now, we can receive a 24-hour feed, directly from FOX, CNN and other production centers. When a FOX News host says, "We now bring you breaking news....", it's all gratuitous because they are already on the network! In the traditional definition, they can't break into themselves!

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Welcome to ELU. I've added some paragraph breaks to your answer. The system usually requires a clear line (two consecutive line breaks) to start a new paragraph. – Lawrence May 26 at 6:35

Breaking news here means that it is new.

We can say 'the breaking of day' or 'morning broke' meaning that it is the start of this event.

'We broke the story' means we caused it to become a new event by being the first to spread it.

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Thanks, but I understand what it means, I'm just wondering why it came to be called breaking. – Fred Apr 3 '11 at 12:31

"Breaking" news, is "fresh" news that is happening AS WE SPEAK. We "broke" the story, means, we caught "it as it was happening" (Think of "breaking new ground.")

In English grammar, it is a reference to the "present progressive" tense.

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Perhaps they're called "breaking news" because they break the normal, scheduled programming?

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"Perhaps"? Do you have any evidence to back up your suggestion? – Chenmunka Jun 17 '15 at 8:51
Sometimes, I hear something like, "This news is breaking as we speak" even after programming has been interrupted. – Fred Jun 18 '15 at 18:08

To break the news to someone most probably is the image of the medieval messenger who bears his message as a roll of parchment, rolled together and sealed. When he comes to the king he breaks the seal and reads the message to the king. He breaks the news to him, actually he breaks the seal and reads the news to him. This two-part expression was shortened, with to break from the first part and news from the second part. Astonishing that etymonline does not mention to break the news to someone.

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This idea is very appealing and makes a lot of sense, if you can find any online/offline references which echo or confirm your idea, you might have hit the nail on its head. Otherwise, this is but your opinion, interesting though it might be. See Robusto's answer re: Etymonline – Mari-Lou A Jun 17 '15 at 5:40
Etymonline has only: Meaning to disclose is from early 13 c. As I have said etymonline does not mention "to break the news". And as I have said this connection with breaking a sealed message is most probable. This means that it is my personal view without any prove that could verify this view. It is up to the reader which of the posted assumptions seems plausible to him. I can't deliver a prove for every etymological view I post, that is why I say it is probable or this is my view or similar things. - Robusto has not more than etymonline. – rogermue Jun 17 '15 at 6:01
It is very tempting to post an idea and then say afterwards "It's only my idea but I can't prove it". In all the etymology questions I have attempted to answer in the past, and in all those I have asked, I have always tried to find some solid reference or backup. If you look, I'm sure there is one that supports your very good idea. – Mari-Lou A Jun 17 '15 at 6:06
And I strongly disagree it is up to the OP to decide which answer is the most probable, on EL&U the emphasis is on factuality, not style or opinions. Sometimes there is no right answer, but sometimes there is a best argued answer. And, this is not one of them. But it could be, if this idea had occurred to me, I would have done a little more research than it seems you are willing to put in. – Mari-Lou A Jun 17 '15 at 6:09
@Lawrence I liked Parris Morgan's answer, and upvoted that. Rogermue has good intuition but he often fails to back that intuition, and etymology should be based on evidence not "impressions" or interesting theories. – Mari-Lou A May 26 at 6:31

This question opens up a very interesting line of enquiry. To answer the question and stimulate your mind at the same time, think of breakers (on the shore). The gracefully-curved waves collapse on the shore, and break into tiny fragments. Now, at one time, fresh information was spoken of as "tidings". Maybe this was because information of far-off events (what we now call news) came with ships, which would use the tides for deeper water on landing. Hence, it seems to me that there is a hidden connection with tides, and the sea in general, with the expression: "breaking news". It arrives fresh on the shore from abroad, as it were, breaking up as it does so. It also seems to me that the word "news" has some connection with tides. In olden days, people might go down daily to the shore, to see what new things (maybe useful items or materials) had been washed up. In the language of those times, these would probably be referred to as "new things", and might be eagerly sought for fuel, construction material etc. After a while, this expression would probably be shortened (as many expressions are) to "news". People might run home with their find, and say: "I have news for you". Well, that's my take on this matter.

On a slightly different note in relation to the question, and after further thought, it occurs to me that there is a clear link between the words: break, breach and broach. (A bottle of wine is broached when first opened, of course, as is a subject of discussion.) Go figure. This does not necessarily contradict the views previously expressed by me (in this same "answer", such as it is).

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Can you cite any source which relates breaking news to breaking waves, or is this simply a speculative exercise? – choster Jan 8 '14 at 16:18
I can't cite any support for my view of this matter. It's purely a result of my pondering on the question. It's very easy to be mistaken, of course, and I would welcome any correction to what I have put forward. – Pundit not really Jan 9 '14 at 17:23
Please visit the Help Center. This is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site; we are trying to find useful answers for the poster. Idle speculation is not useful. – choster Jan 9 '14 at 17:51
It is an interesting link made between "tidings", for "news", and waves (the tide) breaking on the shore, but of course it is not suitable as an answer and should rather serve the OP as a starting point for research. In this case, the theory can be debunked: etymonline.com states "tidings", for "announcement of an event" comes from 1069, from Old English "tidung", meaning "event, occurrence, piece of news," whereas "tide" for "rise and fall of the sea" is from mid-14th C. – nxx Jan 10 '14 at 14:50
Sorry, the responder, not the OP. – nxx Jan 10 '14 at 14:57

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