We had a recent question on the Workplace which resulted in this answer:

5 Minutes Early Is On Time; On Time Is Late; Late Is Unacceptable!

Someone asked for a citation and I attempted to locate it, albeit poorly. It's not a saying I've heard of in the UK and Google came up with a few references:

However from speaking to some of the US users, they believe the term has been around for longer.

Does anyone know where the phrase came from and is it mainly a US based phrase?

  • I'm guessing it's from a textile factory, ca 1800. Whether US or British is hard to guess.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 20, 2019 at 11:41
  • I heard this explanation from a military veteran who was running an interview skills workshop. He said it was from his service days. "If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late. And if you're late ..." He would trail off, shake his head, and then smile. "You're SOL." This was ~2013; I guess that he served at any time between the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 13:00
  • I found this from 1991 "WASP Standard Time? Always fifteen minutes early; for WASPs on time is late." nytimes.com/1991/01/17/books/… Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 13:29

3 Answers 3


It depends how exactly you as looking for the phrase, Dickey's book is from 2007, not 2017. It says:

"Early is on time. On time is late" She nodded "And late is unacceptable"

But nothing about "5 minutes".

And others said similar things earlier, such as Spotlight on Teaching Orchestra (2005)

The saying "Early is on time, on time is late, and late is inexcusable" holds true for musicians

The Instrumentalist (1991) says:

Early is on time; on time is late

Letterman's law of private international business (1990) says:

in Germany you often hear the old Prussian army maxim, "Five minutes early is on time."

In 1981, there was the book Noble House, which says:

"Five minutes early is on time"

But not the rest of the phrase. This quote from the book was also in the 1981 Reader's Digest version.

  • Updated the publishing date, thanks for that. The information you've provided is fantastic. Do any of these sources point that the phrase is used more in certain areas of the world or can it be considered a pretty global phrase in all of its forms? From what I can see, most of the sources are American apart from the Noble House, which could still be American depending on where the author lived at the time, but is difficult to distinguish..
    – Draken
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 14:55
  • @Draken a 1990 reference says "in Germany you often hear the old Prussian army maxim, "Five minutes early is on time."" books.google.com/… will add it to the answer
    – DavePhD
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 15:00

I expect the Cold War U.S. military global presence has codified this common perception to reflect U.S. sources. Military culture influences locals to adopt the "hurry up and wait" lifestyle. So, though military don't originate the saying, they say their version the most, thus making it the standard for occupied areas. And their version is influenced by American sources.


US military basic training in the 1990s taught this, but switched the order:

On time is late, five minutes early is on time.

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