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Is there one trick that is the oldest? I understand the Oxford definition of the idiom but when was it first used and what did it refer to?

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    Etymology is off-topic? Huh? Feb 14, 2014 at 5:56
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    It's an idiom meaning that you fell for something that should have been fairly obvious! There is no oldest trick in the book. Nor is there a book of tricks, for that matter. Although, the latest commercial from GEICO would suggest otherwise.
    – David M
    Feb 14, 2014 at 6:04
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    Looketh here! Madest thou look!!
    – bib
    Feb 14, 2014 at 12:54
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    You say you understand the Oxford definition. If you looked it up in the OED, then most likely they have a reference with date, which would be your answer, right? Wait, your question is ambiguous as stated...do you care about the first sighting of the phrase or the first use of the general idea?
    – Mitch
    Feb 14, 2014 at 21:57
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    It's still useful to clarify what you're not looking for, especially when everyone is going in the wrong direction. We are not mind readers, so we cannot guess what you will find “entertaining” or “worthless” or a “first step” or correct. And please stop insinuating that people are somehow doing you a disservice for trying to help the best they can. And please edit your question to reflect what you actually want to know! Feb 19, 2014 at 23:31

5 Answers 5

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The earliest instance of "the oldest trick in the book" that a Google Books search finds isn't very old. It occurs in James Clavell, King Rat (1962) [combined snippets]:

Then he remembered the advice of the King. “Today, tomorrow, it doesn't matter. Just interested,” he said and played his trump. He got up. The oldest trick in the book. “Well, see you tomorrow, Mac. Maybe Larkin and I'll drop around tonight."

The "trump" referred to here isn't a play in an actual card game. It's the act of getting up as if to leave, as an indication that the question the character had just asked didn't matter much to him and that he didn't mind not getting an answer. That, according to James Clavell, is "the oldest trick in the book."

Not surprisingly, other books have other ideas about the oldest trick. Here are a few other early candidates for the oldest trick in the book, drawn from a Google Books search.

From Elizabethan, volumes 19–20 (1966):

"O.K. I can afford to trust you—my legs are twice as long as yours!" grinned Fallon.

"Cor! Look at that rocket!"

Jackson pointed high across the road. It was the oldest trick in the book, but it worked. As Fallon turned his head, Jackson made a quick backwards dart and shot up a dark alley. Like lightning he twisted and turned, scrambling over walls and through openings till he was sure he had shaken off the detective, then he crept quietly home to his shabby bed-sitter.

From Leo Leonard, I Miss You When You're Here (1976):

Besides, the oldest trick in the book is to point the finger of guilt at one of your own to take the heat off the real culprit.

From Situation in Vietnam (supposedly dated 1959, but probably considerably later) [snippet]:

Mr. Colegrove was able to arrive at his dramatic conclusion by the oldest trick in the book — quotation out of context.

From Movies and Moviedom: An Anthology (1976):

During the concluding gunfight, Hawks gives special visual emphasis to an action contrivance that Mitchum devises without assistance from anyone else in the group, the camera follows as he lopes off from the crossfiring fusillades, stops at a river, squats down to perform Adventuredom's oldest trick in the book, swimming underwater and breathing through a hollow reed, with delight in his own supposed Odyssean stealth and craftiness.

From Ron House and Diane White, Bullshot Crummond (1974)[preview not shown]:

Lenya. (She enters in a flying suit.) Otto! The plane is waiting! (She sees the three bodies. Crosses to the table and sniffs the doped drink.) Ein Wilhelm Finn! So Otto! You fell for the oldest trick in the book. Luckily I always carry the antidote.

From James R. Stein and Robert Iles, The Engagement (1975):

Lamont. No, man. That's the oldest trick in the book. She just told you that stuff about another guy to trap you. Sagittarius the hunter got captured by the game.

About the only thing we can say about these competing candidates for the oldest trick in the book is that they are all pretty old tricks. Not only is there no consensus among the sources as to the truly oldest trick in the book, there is virtually no overlap at all. The situation is strikingly different from the general agreement as to, say, the identity of the oldest profession (see Why (and since when) is prostitution called “the world's oldest profession”?).


Update (April 30, 2022): Search results revisited and updated

Since I wrote this answer eight years ago, I have become somewhat more proficient at using the search tools available at Google Books and other publication databases. As a result, I have found a number of instances of "the oldest trick in the book" that are older than the ones I included in my original answer. Here, in chronological order, are the examples I found from 1960 and earlier.

From an unidentified story in Collier's magazine (May 20, 1939) [combined snippets]:

Sunlight poured out of the low west, the color of fire. Ford still held his position at the rim, watching the canyon. He called to Benteen in a thoroughly exasperated voice: "Those damned savages are still in sight."

Al Hazel said: "I reckon that's the oldest trick in the book. They figger a white man will jump at bait. Most white men will."

From an unidentified story in Collier’s magazine (August 15, 1942) [snippet view]:

There was a horse somewhere in the barn, grinding on its bit. The rank smell of the barn was sweetened with the odor of fresh hay. The girl walked over the packed dirt floor and her voice held it’s softly amused tone: "Why would they double back? "

"The oldest trick in the book. Maybe the big man wouldn't. But he had a fellow with him with a sour-milk disposition. That fellow, I judge, is a bloodhound!"

From "Mollin Sets Forth Public Land Point, " in American Cattle Producer (August 1947) [combined snippets]:

The propaganda that followed the publication of this proposal [from the Joint Live Stock Committee on Public Lands] has been as vicious as we have ever seen. Stockmen have been pictured s land grabbers and land stealers, and nationally-known magazine men have presented distorted information giving only the bureaucratic side of the story. It has been made to appear that if this proposal were to become law, the big cattlemen would gobble up the little cattlemen. This is the oldest trick in the book of the bureaucrats. Every time the national associations sponsor anything the bureaus do not like, the propaganda machine begins to turn out this old story. It has also been said that if the ...

From Alan Le May, Hell for Breakfast (1947) [combined snippets]:

Melody did look at the door again. What he had said was true; there was a door behind Ira Waggoner with glass in its upper half. But the glass had been fogged with a streaky white paint.

"That's the oldest trick in the book, sonny," Waggoner said. "Monte will spank your little behind if he hears about you trying that."

From Dee Linford, Man Without a Star (1952) [combined snippets]:

"Stock Growers had a bunch of dodgers printed, and planted them on us!" Bitch Crick agreed, savage in his self-denunciation.

"The oldest trick in the book, and we fell for it! God, I'd like to have the pimp in my sights for a minute!"

From "There's Some Old Snake Oil in the 'New' Economics," in The Saturday Evening Post (February 21, 1953) [combined snippets]:

In the heyday of the New Economics, it was useless to point out that fiddling with the price of gold was the oldest trick in the book; that neither the Emperor Diocletian nor the French revolutionaries could make price fixing work, even with the death penalty; that direction of labor was at worst slavery and at best something like the savage Elizabethan poor laws ; or that monopoly followed its own disastrous course, no matter whether it was the gift of a king to his favorite duke, or the boon of a socialist government to a cherished labor union.

From Robert Sheckley, "Hunting Problem," in Citizen in Space: Stories (1955) [combined snippets]:

That left ilitrocy. It was the oldest trick in the book, and he'd have to get close to work it. But he had nothing left lo lose.

From Edward Beach, Run Silent, Run Deep reprinted in Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (Autumn 1955):

As if by magic, four white blossoms appeared in the water, two alongside side to starboard, one just astern, one a few feet ahead and to port. Foaming water deluged our forecastle. We had been trapped as neatly as you please by a Q-ship—a heavily armed warship disguised as a merchantman. It was the oldest trick in the book.

From Damon Knight, The People Maker (1959) [snippet view]:

Dick said, “I put the poison in my canteen, and made sure I got his when the soldier brought them back.”

Melker raised his eyebrows expressively. "You see? The oldest trick in the book."

From "Statement of Leonard J. Saccio, Deputy Director of International Cooperation Administration," in U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Sate Department Organization and Public Affairs of the Committee in Foreign Relations, Situation in Vietnam (July 30, 1959):

He [Mr. Colegrove] says that Mr. Gonder protested losing the contract [for providing steel for a bridge] and wrote to Mr. Gardiner. Colegrove says:

Mr. Gardiner's reply cam by letter on August 21—

and now he is quoting Mr. Gardiner's letter:

"As we have advised you orally," said Mr. Gardiner's letter, "the decision on this and all awards conducted by the Central Purchasing Agency is the responsibility of the Government of Vietnam, and is not one that lies within the purview of this (American) mission * * *."

In commenting on this abbreviated quotation, Mr. Colegrove adds:

In other words: Don't bother us. We only hand over the money. How it's spent is no concern of ours.

Mr. Colegrove was able to arrive at his dramatic conclusion by the oldest trick in the book—quotation out of context. Let me read the very next sentences of Mr. Gardiner's letter:

However, in view of the nature of your interest, we have taken this matter up with the Director General of Budget and Foreign Aid, who has informed us that, fully cognizant of the importance of this award, the Purchasing Agency established a commission of competent engineering experts to evaluate the bids. ...

Note that this is the instance I found in my research eight years ago but parenthetically (and erroneously) described as "supposedly dated 1959, but probably considerably later." As it turns out, the 1959 date was entirely accurate.

From Jerome Barry, Malignant Stars (1960) [snippet view]:

"It isn't at all subtle what he did to us," Signe murmured. "Why, darling, it's the oldest trick in the book! But he should have known I'd fight back."

From Ovid Demaris, The Extortioners (1960):

"Don't you understand what I'm trying to say?"

"No."

"Well, then I'll tell you. Sid Adams is a phony. He's only interested in money. Do you think he’d star you in a picture if he didn’t want my money? For crying-out-loud, Ali, think, use your head will you? This is the oldest trick in the book."

And from Poul Anderson, Murder in Black Letter* (1960) [combined snippets]:

"Here we go," said Yamamura. "No, you ape, don't blow your nose! Oldest trick in the book, and you can bet there's at least one plainclothesman here tonight."


Conclusions

As was the case with the seven examples from 1962–1976 cited in my original answer, there is zero agreement among the published instances from the period 1939–1960 as to the precise identity of "the oldest trick in the book." As nearly as I can tell, not one of the thirteen instances from that period noted here identifies the same "oldest trick" as any other.

That's not to say that there aren't some very old tricks on display here: trying to lure opponents into an ambush, doubling back after departing, raising alarm about how a policy will affect small farmers, telling someone with a gun to look behind him, planting incriminating evidence on someone, manipulating gold prices, disguising a warship as a merchant vessel, pulling the old switcheroo with poison in a canteen, using out-of-context quotations to misrepresent what someone actually said, ingratiating oneself to others in order to get their money—most of these tactics were ancient when Homer was a lad. But the sense I get is that these authors were using "the oldest trick in the book" from the outset to mean simply "a very old trick, " without intending to allude to some particular book detailing that particular trick.

Intriguingly, ten of the earliest thirteen instances I could find involve short stories or novels, rather than nonfiction writing. Several of the earliest examples seem to involve cowboy/western settings, but the expression soon appears in crime/mystery and science-fiction contexts as well. The three early nonfiction instances come from the head of a national cattlemen's group, from a critic of U.S. economic policy, and from a government bureaucrat.

Ultimately, there are too few examples to support any conclusions about the origin of "the oldest trick in the book" beyond the high probability that it is of U.S. origin and the now-documented fact that it has been in use since at least 1939.

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    A bump in rep from my answer brought me back to this interesting, tricky question. What great answers you give and have given! Fun to read your 'work' again. You deserve every badge you've earned and much, much more. Apr 26, 2022 at 10:46
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    @anongoodnurse: Thanks for your kind words. I hadn't looked at this answer in years—and it is from a time before I figured out how to improve Google Books search results by narrowing the search period. So I went back and re-searched Google Books (and Elephind and Hathi Trust) and found a bunch of earlier instances of "the oldest trick in the book." I have updated my answer to include some of those instances. I hope that the revised answer here looks more accurate eight years from now than the original answer looks today!
    – Sven Yargs
    May 1, 2022 at 0:52
  • Reading an answer that is years old is usually illuminating in some way. I'm sorry it provoked you to improve an already good answer. But your search abilities are truly awesome! Again, fun to read. (Some of those quotes are really cheesy! <- Now that's a word I haven't used in decades.) :) May 1, 2022 at 12:22
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The oldest trick in the book is just a way of saying that something has been done over and over, and though we ought to know better, we fall for it again, a ruse so hackneyed that it should no longer deceive anyone.

One man distracted me while another stole my wallet. I can't believe I fell for the oldest trick in the book.

NPR did a piece with that title about buying "ridiculously cheap" TVs and iPads, which turned out to be cleverly packaged plywood or floor tiles. People thought they were buying stolen goods cheaply, but (here's another idiom) it's obvious that when something's too good to be true, it usually isn't true. People were getting conned. Appealing to greed to trick someone is the oldest trick in the book.

It could be the Vaudeville eye-poke, tapping someone on the shoulder opposite of the side you're standing on, getting someone to look away while you snatch something, a bait-and-switch, or it might refer to a trick in the Epic of Gilgamesh where Gilgamesh tricks a monster into giving him his 'seven radiances". It could be a story (I couldn't verify it) from the Westcar Papyrus which tells of four feats of magic, one (supposedly) involving the faked decapitation and ressurection of a goose. Finally, a good candidate for the title is Eve's deception by the serpent in Eden, as the Bible is widely known as the Book (a literal translation of it's title). The serpent lies to Eve and gets her to eat the forbidden fruit, and when God asks her what happened, she states, "He tricked me."

This topic was part of Vaudeville acts, and is still the butt of jokes, as this example shows:

Red Mage: You just fell for the oldest trick in the book, Lich King!
Thief: The one where you get three gullible suckers to make you their undisputed leader?
Red Mage: You just fell for the second oldest trick in the book, Lich King!
Lich: The trick where you put your soul into a gem so you can't be killed and instead become an invincible ruler of the dead?
Red Mage: You just fell for the third oldest trick in the book, Lich King!
Fighter: You mean attaching two sword hilts by a length of chain -
Red Mage: Okay, that is so not in trick book!

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    No offense - your answer was thorough but not my question. Feb 14, 2014 at 6:21
  • @RyeBread - if you know the answer, by all means, please share! Feb 14, 2014 at 6:28
  • Since @RyeBread hasn't accepted your answer, I've posted my own which is similar, but I feel acceptably different. I did up vote yours, though, as I did feel it answered the question.
    – David M
    Feb 14, 2014 at 6:59
  • The question is origin. I saw most of the things in Susan's answer on the first couple of pages that came up on google. Feb 14, 2014 at 7:12
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    @RyeBread Susan has kindly answered both the question you asked in your title and the question you asked in your first sentence. If you didn't mean to ask the question(s) she answered, I suggest rewriting the question(s).
    – MetaEd
    Feb 16, 2014 at 1:31
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EDIT: As I understand it, the OP is asking what is the oldest trick published in a book, and when the idiom, the oldest trick in the book, first arose. I can't answer the second part of the question, and trust me I Googled everywhere, even in the Library of Congress archives whose newspaper pages available for searching are from 1836-1922.

I did however find one article which mentioned the oldest book of tricks, entitled: How a Conjurer Learns His Trade, it was printed by The Marion Daily Mirror, May 17, 1909 wherein the author reports that conjurers are forced to either improve on famous but old tricks, or invent new ones. Hardly breaking news stuff, nevertheless, a direct reference it is.

The oldest book on conjuring in existence, published in 1584, contains descriptions of some of the tricks performed this season;...

Coincidentally there are two books, both printed in 1584, which hold claim to be the oldest book of tricks. They are La Premiere Partie des Subtiles et Plaisantes Inventions (The First Part of Subtle and Pleasant Tricks) by Jean Prevost and The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. The first is a French volume which describes approximately eighty-four magic tricks, whereas the English book gives a succinct but clear description of about fifty-two tricks.

So we have the oldest books of tricks but what of the oldest trick itself? Was it performed by a wizard with supernatural powers, a magician involving sleight of hand, a witch’s spell or a confidence trick? As a critic of B.T. Barnum’s famously once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

The Oldest Magic Trick

The Cups and Balls is one of the oldest magic tricks which still survives today. The most widely performed version uses three cups and three small balls. The magician makes the balls pass seemingly through the solid bottoms of the cups, to then magically disappear only to reappear under a different cup. Sometimes under the cups larger objects, like fruit, or vegetables, or even baby chicks will appear.

One of the oldest-ever magic tricks. It certainly existed 2,000 years ago performed by Roman conjurers and may be older; an Ancient Egyptian mural at Beni Hassan might depict the trick (although many people think it’s just a picture of a baker baking bread). Typically, you have three cups and three balls, which inexplicably move from cup to cup. It’s also the basis of the shell game, or ‘find the lady’ con trick.

Following the Pea through History by Whit Haydn

The game of Thimble-Rig is mentioned as early as 1716 in John Gay’s Trivia, or, Walking the Streets of London, and the swindle certainly goes back much further. In the 1840’s, as the sleight-of-hand technique began to change, the game evolved in the United States into the famous “Three Shell Game.”

The Romans called street magicians acetabularii from the Latin word for cups. In the first century, the philosopher Seneca enjoyed these sleight-of-hand performers and expressed pleasure in the mystery of the tricks, “If I get to know how a trick is done, I lose my interest in it.” It is even said that the emperor Nero wrote a treatise on the performance of the Cups and Balls. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, itinerant jugglers and gypsies performed the Cups and Balls throughout Europe. This ancient trick has always been—and still is—an important part of the performing magician’s repertoire. Yet, at some unknown point in history, this innocent entertainment was turned by some long-forgotten rascals into a betting scam or “take-down” game.

An example of the Cups and Balls used as a money-making con game is given in Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin’s book, Les Tricheries des Grecs, 1863. Its English title; Card-Sharpers: Their Tricks Exposed or The Art of Always Winning.

The Oldest Book of Tricks

Image

The first book of tricks in English is called The Discoverie of Witchcraft written by Reginald Scot in 1584. It was sceptical about witchcraft, and attempted to reveal how these fraudulent schemes were performed and how people were easily fooled by conjuring tricks.

It was intended to expose witchcraft as the work of charlatans who employed trickery to dupe the public. As such, it is considered to be the first published work about magic and sleight of hand. Scot's aim, however, was to prevent the persecution of innocent eccentrics, the poor, deranged, or simple-minded, many of whom at the time were still being officially accused of witchcraft and were often executed. Because of is controversial nature, all obtainable copies were seized and burned in 1603, by James I

Confidence Trick

The first known usage of the term "confidence man" in English was in 1849; it was used by American press during the United States trial of William Thompson. Thompson chatted with strangers until he asked if they had the confidence to lend him their watches, whereupon he would walk off with the watch; he was captured when a victim recognized him on the street.

Two of the Oldest Cons in History

1) One of the oldest cons in the book is the so-called “pig in a poke,” which dates back to the Middle Ages. At the time, quality meat was scarce, and pigs and cows were often worth large sums of money. In this particular con, the trickster would offer to sell another person a baby pig, and after receiving the money they would hand over a “poke,” or burlap sack, that clearly had a squirming live animal in it. If the victim neglected to check inside, they would be surprised when they arrived home to find that the sack contained a cat instead of a pig. The term “buying a pig in a poke” has since become a common expression meaning to make a risky purchase, and some say that the phrase “let the cat out of the bag” also dates back to this well known con.

2) The shell game is portrayed as a gambling game, but in reality it is a confidence trick used to cheat a person out of his money, often referred to as a short-con by swindlers because it is quick and easy to pull off.

The shell game dates back at least to Ancient Greece. It can be seen in several paintings of the European Middle Ages. A book published in England in 1670 mentions the thimblerig game, another name for the shell game . In the 1790s, it was called "thimblerig" because sewing thimbles were used to hide the ball.

The game requires three shells, and a pea. It can be played on almost any flat surface, but on the streets it is often seen played on a cardboard box. The person perpetrating the swindle (called the thimblerigger, operator, or shell man) begins the game by placing the pea under one of the shells, then quickly shuffles the shells around.

Once done shuffling, the operator takes bets from the audience on the location of the pea. The audience is told that if a player bets and guesses correctly, the player will win back double their bet (that is, they will double their money); otherwise the player loses their money. However, in the hands of a skilled operator, the game can never be won.

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  • A bump in rep from my answer brought me back to this interesting, tricky question. What great answers you give and have given! Fun to read your 'work' again. (I had already upvoted, so if you got a bump too, it wasn't from me. :) ) Apr 26, 2022 at 10:43
  • @anongoodnurse blush thank you.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 29, 2022 at 5:43
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In answer to your question, there is no oldest trick, nor is there a book of tricks that has them compiled in chronological order.

The complete idiom is that you fell for the oldest trick in the book.

This idiom is using a metaphor to imply that the thing you fell prey to has happened to people since the beginning of time, and therefore you should have recognized and avoided it.

I do not think you will (easily) find a first usage for this idiom. I would guess early 20th century, but that's mostly because this type of idiom was a favorite amongst my grandparents' generation.

And, to round it out, without a time machine, you could never figure out what was the first trick one person played upon the other during the advent of the written word.

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    The question was the origin of the phrase. I completely understand what the phrase means and actually stated that in the question. Just because you can't find the original use or anything that is beyond 10 seconds of googling doesn't mean no one knows this. Feb 14, 2014 at 7:11
  • @ryebread Well, that's not etymology then. The etymology would be studying the origin of each individual word and it's changed meaning through history. You are asking for the first literary reference, and I would say that is off topic.
    – David M
    Feb 14, 2014 at 7:53
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    @DavidM: On the contrary, it is certainly on topic here to do OED-like things and produce a first literary reference. But that is a very difficult thing to do (to make sure it is the first).
    – Mitch
    Feb 14, 2014 at 22:00
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    I think this answers the question as written (“Is there one trick that is oldest?”) rather than the question that RyeBread meant to ask (“How/when did this idiom arise?”). Since several people have taken this tack to answering the question, you may want to revise it to better reflect what you mean. Feb 15, 2014 at 1:28
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    @RyeBread You asked the question is there an oldest trick? Do you want an answer to that, or the origin of the idiom? Make your question clearer and you may get the answer you seek. You edited it, but it still represents two fundamentally different questions.
    – David M
    Feb 15, 2014 at 3:18
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The phrase "oldest trick in the book" was used to describe a trick play in football in November 1939, a few months after the Collier's use cited by Sven.

"Reports from Champaign indicate the Illini worked one of the oldest tricks in the book on Michigan when Rettinger hid along the sideline and took a 'sleeper' pass to score." Tate. "Red Peppers." Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 7, 1939, p8

And there were close variations from football and baseball even earlier than that.

"Michigan always has held some mystic power over Minnesota and that was exerted in their last meeting, with two of the oldest trick plays in the book." - John Bentley. "I May Be Wrong." Lincoln Journal, November 22, 1929, p21

"One of Centre's ends pulled one of the oldest football tricks in the book against one of Xavier University's supposed-to-be star linemen Friday night." -- Lou Smith. "Sport Sparks." Cincinnati Enquirer, October 21, 1931, p8

"Probably the oldest trick in the baseball book, the hidden ball, was pulled by Jules Wera in the sixth inning after Blackerby had tripled to center." -- Clyde Giraldo. "Ludolph Hurls Four-Hit Game in Afternoon." San Francisco Examiner, April 17, 1933, p16.

There was also this, in a commentary about a murder of a police officer for which a man faced the electric chair while his female partner was let go on account of being a "love-slave" of the killer. Not so, said the author of the article, the psychiatrist William Marston:

"Women's chief drive -- the agressive love-drive is to induce men, captivate them and thereafter use them for her own purposes....This is the oldest feminine trick in the book." Prof. Wm. M. Marston. "Science Derides the 'Love=Slave' Verdict, Crying 'Woman is the Man's Love=Master." Tacoma Ledger, December 16, 1934, p36. [If Marston's name sound familiar, it's because he was both the inventor of the lie detector and the creator of Wonder Woman. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Moulton_Marston]

Before the 1929 use cited above, there were similar terms used to describe trick plays in football in baseball, including: "oldest trick in football history" to describe a fake punt (1894); and "oldest trick in the business" to describe the hidden ball trick (1898).

Outside of sports, there were earlier terms, all referring to various scams and tricks that one shouldn't fall for: "oldest trick in human nature" (1864); "oldest trick known in society" (1868); "oldest trick in the world (1870); "one of the oldest tricks on record" (1878); and others.

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  • Excellent research and great insights!
    – Sven Yargs
    May 5, 2022 at 1:26

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