In general, Josh61’s answer provides very strong factual background on the emergence of boondoggle as a term that is now used to characterize wasteful projects or expenditures or unproductive employment (often in connection with the government). However, I wanted to add a few references that fill out the picture of usage in 1935 and before.
A neckerchief well boondoggled
With regard to the possible Boy Scout origin of the term, one historian of the Boy Scouts asserts that “Boon Doggle” originally referred not to a lanyard but to a ring for holding a scout’s neckerchief in place. From Susan Cohen, The Scouts (2012) [combined snippets]:
Around this time, the problem of creased neckerchiefs or scarves, was resolved with the creation of the 'woggle' by Bill Shankley, an eighteen-year-old campsite employee at Gilwell Park, in the 1920s. The British ring, through which the scarf was threaded, was a version of the American ‘Boon Doggle’, and was made of fine leather strips plaited in a knot. It was officially approved for general use by the committee of the Scout Movement Council in July 1923.
If the “woggle” was indeed approved under that name for general use by the [British] Scout Movement Council in July 1923, that suggests that the American equivalent “Boon Doggle” may have been known as such even earlier.
Another citation of a very early source occurs in Geoge Stimpson, A Book About American Politics (1952) [combined snippets]:
In 1935 a movie actor named Guy Kib[b]ee thought the people in the Ozarks called gadgets made of discarded materials boondoggles because Daniel Boone whiled away idle hours whittling out toys for his dog to play with. Robert H. Link, a former Boy Scout of Rochester, New York, said in the same year that he had nicknamed his son “Boondoggle” when he was born in 1926. Link thought his use of the word was responsible for its adoption by the Boy Scouts during the Jamboree in England in 1929. An unidentified writer in the March, 1930, issue of Scouting said: "Boon-doggles are like old-type lanyards. They are made of plaited leather. Scouts have been making them for years for uniform ornaments all over the world."
Boondoggling becomes political
The original report of the New York City Aldermanic Committee, “In the Matter of the Investigation of the Administration of Unemployment Relief in the City of New York” is dated July 8, 1935, although the witnesses called by the committee testified between October 16, 1934, and March 2, 1935. Evidently portions of the testimony reached the press well before the report's July 8, 1935, publication date, since the watershed New York Times article based on its findings appeared (as Josh61 notes) on April 4, 1935. In any event, boondoggling came up in a single brief instance in the report:
Boondoggling: Mr. Marshall, of Massachusetts
Another training specialist who testified was Robert Marshall, of Springfield, Massachusetts. He is the gentleman who gave this investigation, and the world, boondoggling, a subject taught in his branch of the recreational school. There are 150 relief workers who come to this branch of the school to be taught various craft activities.
In a letter to Forum magazine (July 1936) [combined snippets] in response to an article by H.G. Leach titled “In Praise of Boon-Doggling,” Joseph E. Kinsley, Vice-Chairman of the Aldermanic Committee for the Investigation of Relief in New York City said this:
I have just read the editorial foreword in the June issue [of Forum] with great interest.
I must however, register an emphatic protest against the utter misconception of the problem which this foreword discloses. “Boon-doggling” is not an epithet invented by the Aldermanic Committee investigating relief, its counsel, nor the newspapers. It is a word used by the witness, in charge of this division of relief activities, who claimed that it was an old Western term applied to practical gadgets. This definition was discarded even by those most familiar with the history of the Western pioneers. It developed that it was a young Boy Scout’s word used to describe articles made by himself. “Boon-doggling” was thereafter popularly applied to the varied wasteful activities which the investigation disclosed. We make no attack on "boon-doggling" in its narrow sense, if "boon-doggling" is necessary to provide work for those on the relief rolls, but we do attack it as a symbol of what a wasteful social-service cult has foisted on these unfortunate people…
Outside the world of scouting, however, the term boondoggle appears to have been virtually unknown prior to the New York Times article on the Aldermanic Committee findings, as appears from the many published comments in 1935 and 1936 regarding the novelty of the term, which in any case very quickly acquired its sense of (first) a nonessential and (soon afterward) a wasteful undertaking.
For example, from Carter Anderson, How to Locate Educational Information and Data: A Text and Reference Book (1935):
- Where can I find the meaning and proper use of a very recently introduced word like "gadget" or "boon-doggle"?
From Samuel Smith, The Command of Words (1935) [snippet]:
Again, the Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary is immensely hospitable to new words and coinages. We may expect to see in the next edition such neologisms as 'boon-doggles,' 'gertrudesteining,' and 'Ogden-Nashery.' The pages of this
“The Boggle Industry,” in Life magazine (1936) [combined snippets] not only notes the non–Boy Scout meaning of the term but suggests that a short-lived short form of boondoggle (boggle) was in use by 1936:
It isn’t in the dictionaries yet, but future editions will doubtless carry such entry as; “Boondoggle, v. to putter or dilly-dally. Specifically to spend time and money on apparently useless tasks, usually at public expense. Such as: painting funny faces on mothballs.” And that would stand as a reasonably accurate definition of boon-doggling as it is today.
Billions must be spent putting people to work, but it must be work that won't interfere with private industry. The result is a fantastic array of rather odd budget items—$14,762 for a lily pond at Placerville, Cal., $1300 for "advisers'' in the Stockton public library, $2712 for a tree census in Harrisburg, Penn.—and so on.
There are lots of boon-doggles—or boggles, for short—and WPA turns out brand new ones every day.
One man’s boondoggle is another man’s scoubidou
As a final comment on the term, I note this interesting entry for boondoggle from Paul Dickson, Words From the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents (2013):
BOONDOGGLE. A word that has come to mean work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value. The word was not coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt but it was made famous by him on January 18, 1936, when he made some informal extemporaneous remarks to the New Jersey State Emergency Council in reference to the programs of the New Deal. “There is a grand word that is going around, ‘boondoggle.’ It is a pretty good word. If we can 'boondoggle' ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for many years to come.”
The word boondoggle isn’t enshrined in the hearts of the American people in quite the grateful way that Roosevelt had hoped. But as Eugene Reybold, Chief of Engineers of the U.S. War Department, wrote in “America’s Waterways in the War Effort,” Marine News (1942) [combined snippets], yesterday’s boondoggle can be today’s vital infrastructure upgrade:
I have described how today—in contrast to 1917—we have this fine system of waterways actually operating, actually in being. How did that come about?
Well, it didn't just happen. It was the result of a lot of careful planning, a lot of hard work, and a tremendous amount of persevering. And in the record of that work and that perseverance, the name of the National Rivers and Harbors Congress figures often and prominently. While thinking about what I could say to you here today, I leafed through some of the old reports of previous meetings of this Congress. They tell the story. Many a project endorsed in your resolutions is now playing an important part in the war. Many a project which short-sighted critics dubbed as 'pork barrel' or 'boondoggle' is now carrying the steel from which tanks and other armaments are being made. The voices of those critics are now silent. And the Nation gives thanks to those far-sighted critics who fought for projects productive of such invaluable service.