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I have a character saying this in a novel set in the 1920s. I suspect it was in use at that time, but I've been fooled before by this kind of thing. (I had to delete a sentence in which a 1920s character says, "It's out of left field" because that phrase is traceable only back to 1940 or so.)

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silly question -- have you checked the OED for the word angle to see when it entered the language with this particular meaning/use? – Dan Jan 2 '13 at 18:06
Not many people have access to the OED. Unless you live in the UK and have a public library card, it requires a paid subscription. – Barrie England Jan 2 '13 at 18:36
Oh. I am in the US and grew up with it in the house (along with my first magnifying glass) and work in a high school -- we have a copy in the library. – Dan Jan 2 '13 at 23:21

Have you checked Google Ngrams? That might help.

The Ngram indicates the phrase what's your angle first appeared in the mid-1920's, so you should be okay. However, when using this tool for such verification purposes, it's important to remember that Ngram results are based off of written documents (magazines, journals, and books); there's a chance the expression may have been used conversationally before it made its way into print. Some sayings need to reach a critical mass of usage before writers start using the phase in their work.

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Yes, you're right about the "critical mass" concept. The "out of left field" phrase was supposedly in use in the 1930s, but the earliest written is 1949, so I decided to drop that one. I just might keep "what's your angle" in the novel, and assume it's OK. – DaveF Jan 2 '13 at 17:24
Ngrams are case sensitive. "What's your angle" (as opposed to "what's your angle") appears to have first been registered in the mid-1920s. – coleopterist Jan 2 '13 at 17:26
@coleopterist: Great catch!! I've edited my answer, to include a new link to the revised Ngram search. – J.R. Jan 2 '13 at 17:40

Old newspapers

Searching the Chronicling America newspaper archives (1836-1922) gave one result. This question was asked in a letter to the New-York Tribune of December 20, 1922:

Dear Sir: A day or so ago we had an argument as to what the five leading features for the year were in sport, whether on the part of an individual or a team. We never seemed to get anywhere with the debate. What's your angle on the top five? F.L.G.

Oxford English Dictionary

Whilst not the exact phrase, the OED's sense 9b is:

The perspective or aspect from which something is considered, regarded, or presented; a viewpoint, a standpoint. Freq. with preceding modifying word.

With pre-1930 quotations:

860 E. G. Parker Reminisc. Rufus Choate viii. 480 From whatever angle he looked at the facts, from whatever chords he struck the tones, you heard ever the same recurring strain.

1872 ‘G. Eliot’ Middlemarch II. iii. xxiii. 13 Tacit expectations of what would be done for him by Uncle Featherstone determined the angle at which most people viewed Fred Vincy in Middlemarch.

1907 E. Wharton Let. 19 Nov. (1988) 124 As soon as I look at a subject from the novel-angle I see it in its relation to a larger whole, in all its remotest connotations.

And 9c:

colloq. (orig. U.S.). A way of approaching a task; a modus operandi, a method or scheme (sometimes with implication of dishonesty or exploitation).

1920 J. Conway in Variety 31 Dec. 8 He finally caught the proper angle... When in Rome do as the Romans do.

1921 J. Conway in Variety 18 Mar. 5, I thought I was hep to all the angles.

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I was looking through the OED and it made an interesting distinction between the use of the word [though not the phrase] from the perspective of the mathematical, and direction of approach (which could then be traced back to 1805), or the ability to catch something as in fishing. For this meaning, "to use artful means to catch" it dates to 1589 (1601 in Shakespeare). – Dan Jan 3 '13 at 17:46
@Dan: If I remember correctly, angling for fish is related to the angled shape of a hook, and the Angles, who give us the name England and English, are from a hooked peninsula in Denmark. / I also found a possible 1914 which may be related: "What do you hang it on — what's your angle of approach?" "Maybe one thing, maybe another," said Mack. – Hugo Jan 3 '13 at 18:22

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