I came across the phrase walked back from time.com:

a State Department spokesperson had walked back his (John Kerry’s) comments in the Time magazine’s (August 2) article titled, “Oops: John Kerry gaffes, Washington backpedals.”

The article deals with Secretary of States’ remarks about the drone campaign in Pakistan on a press interview:

“I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” Kerry said. “I think the President has a very real timeline, and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.” Was Kerry announcing a dramatic policy shift? Nope. Within hours a State Department spokesperson had walked back his comments, saying: “This was in no way indicating a change in policy…. I have no exact timeline to provide.”

As I wasn’t quite familiar with the case of using walk back in such a context as denying or distancing one’s comments, I checked Cambridge, Oxford, and Merriam-Webster online English Dictionary. None of them shows walk back as an idiom, though they show call back, look back, talk back, walkout, walk through, walk up, and so on.

I’m puzzled about the expression “walk back his comment,” because I understand ‘walk’ is an intransitive verb that doesn't take objective noun (here, his comments). Is this a grammatically correct expression? Though the word 'backpedal' in the headline gave me a hint, what does ‘a spokesperson had walked back his comments’ exactly mean?

Is walk back an idiom in this case, and used very often in such a way as walk back one’s comment / idea / policy / promise / stand / connection, or person?

  • I think I first heard it in the southern US as "walk that one back to the barn".
    – user95213
    Commented Oct 21, 2014 at 21:47
  • It's not a common expression in the US Midwest -- I've head it once or twice, but that about it. May be more common in the rural South.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 21, 2014 at 22:18

7 Answers 7


I've often heard walk back used idiomatically to mean backpedal from or retract a statement or promise.

A search of the Corpus shows that using walk back in this way is more often spoken rather than written.


When a politician walks back a statement they have made, it typically means that they add some additional remarks that are ostensibly intended to clarify (and often make more palatable) some ill-considered words. In this case, it was a State Department official who took on the job of cleaning up (walking back) Kerry's messed-up message.

The term creates a mental picture for me of an elderly person who is about to step out in front of a car being physically held back by a carer and led back to the safety of the sidewalk.

I'm not certain when this usage first began to be popular, but I don't think I heard it being used earlier than about five years ago. If it really is a recent coinage, that would explain its absence from the dictionaries you consulted. It is also my perception that it is much more commonly heard in the USA than in Britain.


I believe I've also heard the expression used in the context of the impossibility of undoing or unsaying something done or said, in which case it is said that "you can't walk that cat back," which refers to the impossibility of "herding cats," or getting them to do what you want.


As other answerers have said, the idiomatic use of "walk back" describes a backing off or distancing of oneself or one's organization from a statement that one (or it) has made on one's (or its) behalf that has drawn criticism and (often) widespread disapproval. It seems to be especially heavily used in political discussions and arguments.

Merriam-Webster Online doesn't offer a definition for "walk back" in this idiomatic sense, but it does have this entry for the phrase:

walk back intransitive verb : to ease back the fall of a hoisting-tackle while keeping it in hand

It's not impossible that someone familiar with this usage involving the controlled descent of a hoisting tackle might have applied it to a tactical revision of a political position, but most politicians and those who cover them are unlikely to find much resonance in the image of a pulley under hand control. Also, the political sense of "walk back" uses the verb transitively, not intransitively.

Two bits of evidence suggest that the idiomatic usage emerged fairly recently. First, Grant Barrett, The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (2004), which is dedicated to precisely the area of U.S. English where the phrase seems to have arisen, shows no awareness of its existence.

Second, a series of Google Books searches for particular phrases that incorporate "walk back" in the relevant sense go back no farther than 2013. For example, a search for the phrase "walk back his earlier" finds matches for the longer phrases "walk back his earlier thesis" (2013), "walk back his earlier use" (2014), "walk back his earlier statement" (2014) [relevant text not shown in snippet window], and "walk back his earlier assertion" (2015).

The earliest match for "walk back [one's] X" that I found in a series of Google Books searches may not be related to the idiomatic sense that Yoichi Oishi asks about. From Norman Ford, Good Night: The Easy and Natural Way to Sleep the Whole Night Through (1983) [combined snippets]:

You can reschedule your bedtime for any hour you choose. But you should not try to "walk back" your bedtime in increments greater than three hours daily. This usually means you must take seven days off from work to complete the process.


If you are able to successfully overcome NS by changing your sleep hours, you might consider experimenting with Technique 7 to "walk back" your body temperature rhythm to a more natural time.

Here "walk back" refers to a systematic, calibrated, interval-based shift over a period of days, figuratively resembling a series of even footsteps that take a person from an undesirable position back to a comfortable and effective one. This has some similarities to the recent political idiom, but it differs in one crucial way: the political "walk back" consistently involves an attempt to recalibrate a message based on unexpected problems with the previous message; thus it is essentially reactionary—a reaction to a reaction. In contrast, Ford's bedtime "walk back" is the product of proactive—not reactive—strategic planning.

The earliest instance of the political idiom that I could find is from Kenneth Timmerman, Shadow Warriors: The Untold Story of Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender (2007):

There was always a dead period between the time you [a reporter] finished a piece and when it came out, and that was when bad things happened. Sources went south. Documents leaked. Government officials panicked and started calling editors, furiously trying to walk back their indiscretions. But when he saw the title to Dana Priest's latest story, “Secret World of U.S. Interrogation,” he feared the worst. He had been scooped.

Other somewhat early instances appear in The Civil Liberties Legacy of Harry S. Truman (2012):

Truman's suggestion to the contrary stuck in the newspapermen's craw and gave ammunition to those who argued he was acting unreasonably. Indeed, Truman's press secretary, Joseph Short, later walked back the president's claim and granted that if the correspondents received news from official channels they could feel safe in running it.And yet the irritation lingered.

and in Carnes Lord, Proconsuls: Delegated Political-Military Leadership from Rome to America Today (2012):

It seems clear that Bremer arrived in Baghdad determined to walk back the administration's established policy concerning an early transition to Iraqi sovereignty. This entailed, however, an American occupation of Iraq lasting — so Bremer seems to have expected — many years, along the lines of the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan.


The image that "walk back" originally intended to invoke is a matter for speculation, but in current usage it refers to something like an orderly tactical withdrawal from a previously stated view, rather than to a headlong retreat amounting to a rout. The phrase does seem to represent a greater distancing than is implied by the idiomatic phrase "step back from."

The earliest Google Books match I could find for "walk back" in its now-common idiomatic sense is in Timmerman's book from 2007—but the expression seems to have penetrated popular culture in the United States only in the past five years.

UPDATE (/18/2016): walking back the cat

Peter M noted in an answer posted on October 20, 2015, that the notion of "walking back" may be tied to an idiom about cats. I have recently found confirmation of that view—and indeed the phrase occurs as "walk back the cat" earlier than the earliest instance I found of "walk back" without a cat. William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008) has this entry:

walking back the cat In diplomacy, retreating from a negotiating position; in intelligence gathering, examining old analyses in light of new information.

Foreign Service officers use this diplomatic slang, which is similar to the "don off the mountaintop" expression of labor leaders faced with the need to reduce demands. [Cross reference omitted.] When President Carter's chief armaments negotiator, Paul Warnke, was criticized for making an unrevealed concession to the Soviets in strategic arms limitation talks, columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote in 1977: "The 600kilometer mystery, therefore, raises suspicions that Paul Warnke will begin 'walking back the cat' on the Carter SALT package, unless checked by the President himself."

A second meaning, in spookspeak, emerged in an 1986 opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune discussing the investigation into the troubling past of Austrian and later U.N. leader Kurt Waldheim: "Intelligence agencies are now 'walking back the cat'—reconstructing events and decisions in light of Waldheim's Nazi past and who might have known and made use of it."

Google Books searches corroborate Safire's comments. For example, from Lawrence Spivak, Meet the Press (1996) [combined snippets]:

And interestingly, in the C.I.A., they talk about walking back the cat, which is taking what we know now and then looking back and seeing how it all happened. Well, to walk back the cat here, [Bob] Dole had said he'd been thinking about this for 45 days. So a month and a half ago, when you were about to ask that question, he was planning this strategy, which essentially is avoid a fight on abortion at the convention, don't rile up the social conservatives on that, but take a position on immigration that was considerably softer than the convention wanted.

And from U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism of the Committee on the Judiciary and the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the Senate Drug Enforcement Caucus, "The Cuban Government's Involvement in Facilitating International Drug Traffic" (April 30, 1983) [combined snippets]:

Mr. LISKER. The cat is out of the bag, so to speak. We are not going to be able to put the cat back in—walk the cat back, as they say. Cuba will not be exonerated from any role in international drug trafficking no matter what information may be developed subsequently.

The instances of "walking the cat back" actually go back to the 1960s. From U.S. Congress, House Committee on Appropriations, "The Budget for 1967: Hearings" (1966) [combined snippets]:

This meant walking the cat back, as it were, on the reductions on automobiles and telephones that became operable on January 1 of this year.

And from U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, "Hearings" (1969) [combined snippets]:

Mr. PETTY. In anticipation of the favorable action within the United States, other countries have already commenced, and I guess in the case of 12 countries have concluded, their authorizing appropriating procedures for this replenishment. To get 18 or 19 countries to march down the same road, roughly? in stage is very hard; to contemplate walking the cat back is difficult.

These instances strongly suggest that "walking back" began as the longer idomatic phrase "walking back the cat" or "walking the cat back," and that the idiom originated as U.S. government or military slang. In fact, the earliest match I could find appears in a book by U.S. admiral Walter Ansel, Hitler Confronts England (1960) [combined snippets]:

Political operator Hitler may have reckoned without his host. Once one is committed to an operation of these proportions, holding back is fraught with complications. Walking the cat back can be harder and more harmful than urging her on. The thing gathers its own momentum and rolls of itself. The Fuhrer of the Germans did not know it on 13 July 1940, but on that day, when he coolly sanctioned the Army plan, he surrendered a substantial part of his erstwhile freedom of action.


Walk back in the case means clarify into order to lessen the impact of Kerry's words and make sure they aren't misinterpreted. Because if you read what Kerry said, it sounds like he's thinking about ending the drone program, when in reality, he's saying at the end of the drone program (whenever the end is).


It's one of my favorite idioms - walk back. I see it as being equivalent to saying "I didn't mean it like that" about a previous statement from which only one meaning can be derived, and then transparently reversing position. It is also similar to pulling a dog back from street crossing and walking the animal back to the curb to avoid jaywalking. It is clear that you and your dog meant to cross the street and then, when confronted by oncoming traffic, you walked your dog and yourself back to the safety of the curb.


As others have written here, walk back does have a hint of retraction in its meaning, but it is not really a full retraction when described that way. As someone commented on another site asking about the term:

It seems a recent coinage, and I can't think of any real synonym. "Retract" doesn't get it. "Walking back" really describes a non-retraction retraction.


The term may originated from a spatial sense (whether metaphorical or not) but seems to be used mostly metaphorically rather than literally in the sense of physically walking away from someone or keeping distance. Sven Yargs gave a fantastic description of the origin, above.

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