What is the origin of "man on the spot" ?

The Free Dictionary defines on the spot and uses as an example man on the spot.

on the spot - at the place in question; there; "they were on the spot when it happened"; "it had to be decided by the man on the spot" (Emphasis added)

Some evidence suggests that the origin of the phrase refers to decisions made by officials of the past British empire and actions taken by them.


2 Answers 2


The OP is correct that origin of the phrase goes back to the time of the British Empire. The OED quotes exmples from as far back as 1746 and 1793. (See below.)

From the Oxford English Dictionary

man on the spot n. a local official, agent, or informant of a government, company, news agency, etc., esp. in a foreign country; a person with immediate responsibility or authority; (also) a local eyewitness

The two earliest examples from the OED are:

1746 Laws, Ordin. & Instit. Admirality Great Brit. II. x. 98 If there be no Consul, nor any other English Man on the Spot, in that case the said Goods and Effects shall be committed to the Custody of the Cadi of the said Place.

1793 Parl. Reg. 1781–96 XXXIV. 115 We shall have a man on the spot, cloathed with the character of an Ambassador, that we might be in a situation to treat with France.

Graham Greene used the phrase in his 1955 novel The Quiet American, which is about the waning days of French and British colonialism in Vietnam. Source, OED

I always like to know what the man on the spot has to say.

Finally (although there are many more examples), the phrase appears in the title of the book The Man on the Spot: Essays on British Empire History (Contributions in Comparative Colonial Studies) by Roger D. Long. A short summary of the book is given below.

Focusing on the role of the individual in the periphery of the Empire, this volume illuminates John Galbraith's thesis that events on the periphery of the British Empire led the man on the spot to expand the area of British control. The man on the spot was a factor in imperial expansion as much as, or sometimes more than, imperial or company policy, which often opposed control of further territory because of the expense.


"on the spot" has two common meanings:

1) in a specific place, usually where something interesting is happening (like "on the scene")

2) forced to deal with something without delay, which you might find difficult, eg "I put him on the spot by asking where he spent the night".


"man on the spot" sounds more like the first meaning, but without more context (eg a sentence) it's hard to say. Can you include the evidence you mention in your question?


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