Bullet point with reference to a typographic marker seems to be the application of an older expression bullet replacing the prefix mid- in another old technical expression midpoint, and the timing of that substitution process seems to be the point of the OP question.
- a small piece of lead, steel, or other metal formed into a ball...to be shot by a firearm.
Unlike modern bullets, the first projectile was a small round "ball," from boulette in French. The little round dot of a bullet point is likewise a small round "ball", or bullet in English.
- Printing A small symbol used to introduce each item in a list, for emphasis. (1950)
early 16th century (denoting a cannonball): from French boulet,
boulette 'small ball', diminutive of boule, from Latin bulla 'bubble'.
In The Elements of Typographic Style, published in 1997, Robert Bringhurst defined bullet with respect to typography (p 273):
A large version of the midpoint used as a typographic
flag. Bullets are commonly hung, like numbers in the left margin to mark items in a list,
or centered on the measure to separate blocks of text. See also midpoint.
n. 2. a dot or point in print or writing, as a period, decimal point, vowel point, etc.
19. the exact or essential fact or idea under consideration
v.t. 4. to give (a story, remark, anecdote, action, etc.) force
5. to show or call attention to (usually with out)
v.i. 2. to call attention to
Old French point, a dot or prick , L prictum, a dot, neuter of prictus, pp. of pungere, to prick
The noun definition 2 describes the generic round symbol • of a bullet point, making the term redundant since bullet and point both refer to the same small round mark.
The noun definition 19 describes the text being emphasized by a bullet point implying an adjectival function for bullet.
The verb definitions describe the function of inserting a bullet point.
Inquiring minds respond to a rambling explanation: "What is your point?" That request for a "verbal bullet point" to highlight the speaker's essential idea, parallels the main purpose of the typographic midpoint, an archaic synonym of bullet point in modern written communication:
Again in The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst defined midpoint with respect to typography (p 281):
An ancient European mark of punctuation, widely used in typography to
flag items in a vertical list and to separate items in a horizontal
line. The blackletter midpoint used by Gutenberg for his blackletter
face was not round, but square and rotated 45 degrees so that there
was a point at the top.
The typographic flag has been used since the European printing press was invented in the 15th century. Gutenberg’s Bible, published by 1454, contained a variation of the round bullet, called Aufzählungspunkt "count out point" in German. It is very unlikely that the English term bullet was used in that fashion until sometime after the printing press was exported to all of Europe from 1466 (Rome) to 1477 (England).
The phrase bullet point was used in the 1865 book Eight Lectures Delivered at the School of Musketry with reference to ballistics:
I am going to explain to you how we correct the error due to defect of
figure, as well as keep the bullet point foremost. It is done by
The OED lists Bullet Point as a word with respect to typography:
1 Each of several items in a list, preceded by a bullet symbol for
use bullet points to remind you what to say
1.1A bullet symbol.
The OED first citation for "bullet point" as a typographic mark is in 1983:
1983 Datamation Sept. 221/1 Each chapter concludes with a bullet-point
list of ‘things to think about’ or ‘things to remember’, which is
particularly helpful if it's been a few days between chapters.
Forethought Inc. and later Microsoft popularized the bullet point in it's ubiquitous PowerPoint, released as Presenter for the Macintosh in 1984, then purchased and released as Microsoft PowerPoint on May 22, 1990. Development, marketing and use of this software would be a significant driver in the sky-rocketing usage of bullet point after 1985.
The phrase bullet point was used for pistol and rifle projectiles from the mid 19th century, but that specific expression does not seem to have been used to describe the typographic marker until 1983.
The mental distinction between the essential point being made and the bullet • marking that essential point is so subtle that all three discrete entities can be independently referred to as a bullet point:
- the marker • is a bullet point in the sense of dot as in midpoint, bullet describing that mark with a first documented use of 1950.
- the text item is a bullet point in the sense of exact essence implying an adjectival function for bullet.
- the text item with the marker • is a bullet point in the sense made popular by Microsoft PowerPoint from the mid 1980's with a documented first use of 1983.
Until more evidence becomes available, we can safely attribute the expression bullet point to the 1983 Datamation article, but its popularity belongs to Dennis Austin, Thomas Rudkin and their team, who developed what is now called PowerPoint.
This answer gratefully acknowledges the primary research of tchrist, Mr. Shiny and New, and Peter Shor. All of their answers were so good, it seemed wise to weave them together into a single comprehensive answer with additional research data.