In the U.S., "All-American" can mean two things.

(1) It can be used as a general phrase, meaning simply clean-cut and middle class. "He's the all-American boy" is a cliché sentence.

Note, this usage has nothing at all to do with sports.

Note, it is sometimes (often?) used (today) somewhat derogatorily or at any rate sarcastically. (I have no idea if that was the case in earlier usage; maybe it was originally used straight-up.)

(2) In the world of U.S. college sports, it specifically means: "in that year, the Nation's best athlete, for that particular team position."

(To clarify: consider college football. You have the various positions (quarterback, kicker, etc). Imagine a hypothetical "dream team" of the single best quarterback, best kicker, and so on nationwide. A number of major media outlets each year decide on such a "dream team": those top college athletes are that year's "All-Americans in college football" (or, whatever sport).)

(Just to further clarity: in professional sports similar terms have arisen, for example "All-Stars", "All-Pro" etc.)

Regarding the the first use of "All-American" in the college sports sense: "Wikipedia" asserts with absolutely no evidence given that it was an 1889 article: it is associated with Walter Camp (a "father of Football" historical figure in the U.S.).

In contrast to All-American-1, All-American-2 is not used sarcastically, it's just used neutrally to mean "the best quarterback (kicker, forward, whatever) that season".

What I seek to understand

  1. When did All-American-1 come in to use

  2. When did All-American-2 come in to use

  3. Was one or the other coined in one go from whole cloth by someone?

and mostly,

  1. In fact: is one or the other, a reference to the other? ie, one was already existing and the other was a reference to it?

2 Answers 2


Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy was a radio series between 1933 and 1951. Every use of the term I remember as a child would have referred to that radio show, even though it ended before I started listening to radio.

My understanding was that the show was incredibly popular, and it would frequently get mentions & audio excerpts in, eg, Abbott and Costello movies that were filmed in that era (and which ran and reran on TV pretty much 24 hours a day up until maybe 1965).

The earliest reference that Ngram finds is 1938.

But apparently the term "All-American" with regard to sport goes back further. The Michigan Alumnus from 1922 contains:

The most recent Michigan player to be honored by an All-American berth is Ernie Vick, '22, of Toledo, O., who was selected by Camp as center because of his playing this past season.

And later:

In 1917 Camp did not select an All-American college team, but he did pick an All-American Service team.

So apparently "All-American", in the sense of an outstanding sports figure, goes back to at least 1917.

And an issue of The Michigan Alumnus from 1902 appears to reference the same concept.

So I would link "All-American Boy" to the "Jack Armstrong" radio show, but the term "All-American" to earlier sports use.

From there I'll leave it to the sports fanatics to pin down the origin of "All-American".


Well, since no one else is doing it, here is the apparent origin of "All-American" in the sports sense:

The College Football All-America Team is an honor given annually to the best American college football players at their respective positions. The original usage of the term All-America seems to have been to the 1889 College Football All-America Team selected by Caspar Whitney and published in This Week's Sports in association with football pioneer Walter Camp. Camp took over the responsibility for picking the All-America team and was recognized as the official selector in the early years of the 20th century.

Note that the team is called the "All-America" team, presumably due to selecting the best players from across the country (*), but the members of the team were/are referred to as "All-Americans".

(*) Apparently even in 1899 there was dissension in the ranks as to whether the best players were being chosen, vs favoring those of the East Coast.

  • 1
    @user867 - Probably a better way to read it in the more common case would be "pan-American" -- from all parts of America (or at least the United States). This is the sense of the sports use, I believe, though "All-American Boy" is presumably derived from the sports sense and means a superior specimen -- someone who would be chosen for an "All-American" team.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 2:32
  • hi user867, yes your reading was totally wrong. it's a yankee phrase meaning "typically" American
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 12:37
  • Regarding first usage in Sports. As I mention in the question, "wikipedia" asserts 1889. There seems to be utterly no evidence supplied for this assertion unfortunately. Perhaps it was commonplace in 1800s newspapers to use that phrase, and the Caspar Whitney article was just using an already-common phrase.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 12:42
  • @JoeBlow - You are correct that it is curious that there is so little mention of the "All-America Team" in the literature. I suspect that, outside of alumni newsletters and local newspapers, sports, and in particular football, was regarded as beneath most writers. The 1899 find, though, appears to confirm the existence of the term at that time, and is consistent with the Wikipedia details. As to whether the term existed prior, again there is the problem that sport was beneath most writers of "persistent" media.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 14:08
  • intriguing, you mean there was typically no "sports section" in papers in that era. thanks again
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 14:25

The origin of the expression is widely attributed to Albert Spaulding's 1888-1889 baseball tour to Australia. The tour featured games between Spaulding's own Chicago White Stockings and an all-star team of players from other teams in the league, a team he dubbed the "All-American Baseball Team." The teams played a tour across the United States from Chicago to San Francisco in late-1888, then played games in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia, before continuing on to Egypt, Rome, London and points in between in early-1889.

Etymonline agrees with that origin. It at least explains why 1889 is so frequently given as the first date of usage.

When Caspar Whitney selected his first College Football All-America Team in 1889, he would have been very familiar with the term used by Spaulding, which was plastered across the pages of newspapers and magazines for months on-end from late-1888 through the spring of 1889.

Edit 8/22/2017: Here's a picture of Spalding's original "All-American" baseball team that went on the Australian tour with the Chicago White Stockings in 1888-89, from Outing Magazine, Volume 13, Number 2, November 1888, page 160. Spalding's All-American Team 1888

More information here: Cellar Doors and Trolleys - the History of Playground Slides.

  • fascinating, nice job
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 0:37

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