Instances in print of the phrase "Republican in name only"—referring to members of the Republican party who, in the writer's opinion, lack sufficient devotion to what the writer regards as the core principles of that party—go back many years. (Precisely what those core principles are seem to vary somewhat from writer to writer and from year to year.)

The earliest instance that an Elephind search finds of the phrase used in that particular way is from "A Strange Blunder," in the [Washington, D.C.] National Republican (January 26, 1875):

Next on the list, beginning from the same end, we find Mr. William Walter Phelps, of New Jersey, and Mr. Charles Foster, of Ohio, both of whom are Republican in name only, and both of whom have proved their treachery to party principles, to party friends and to the policy which can alone secure the success of the party. Clearly they are also inimical to the President [Ulysses S. Grant], to his Southern policy and to the success of the Republican party.

The Elephind search turns up several dozen instances of "Republican in name only" scattered over the subsequent decades, but the earliest instance of the acronym RINO that it finds is from Bronwyn Chester, "Republicans May 'Jump Ship,' not Vote in November," in the Daily Kent [Ohio] Stater (April 16, 2004):

Unlike Democrats, who often seem more like a gaggle of squabbling special interest groups than a political party, we Republicans don’t take kindly to those who break ranks. Over the years, this rather iron-fisted party discipline has borne valuable fruit, including the takeover of both chambers of Congress, the White House and a slew of state capitals.

But it has also resulted in a Republican propensity to push to the right of the next guy and to toe the party line, lest you be branded "a squish" or a RINO—Republican In Name Only. Dissension from basic party norms—let alone party leaders—is tantamount to heresy, so dissenters tend to keep mum.

A Google Books search pushes the earliest occurrence back a few years, to 1998, with one additional match each from 2001 and 2002. From The Economist (1998) [combined snippets]:

Mr [Richard] Riordan, the nominally Republican head of an overwhelmingly Democratic city, is so hated by his own party that he is denounced as a Rino (Republican in name only). Many of his friends would not bring their money or talents to the aid of the city if it meant running for office. But there is one important truth in the left's criticisms: the system is hopelessly unaccountable. The mayor is the first person to recognise this.

From "Don't Let the Failure to Defeat Marge Roukema Inhibit Future Attempts to Purge Liberals," in The American Spectator volume 34 (2001) [combined snippets]:

But the effort did affect Roukema. On the House floor, she approached colleagues who had received backing from the Club for Growth to inquire about what it would take to get straight with them. She modified her voting pattern, which now includes support for total repeal of the estate tax and—after years of opposition—for the requirement of a congressional super-majority to increase taxes.

The club now regrets it did not go after another RINO—Republican In Name Only—in the 2000 primaries: New York's notorious Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, whose voting record is far more liberal than Roukema's. His primary opponent, David Vickers, a conservative high school teacher, pleaded for club money but he was turned down because he did no seem to stand a chance.

And a year later, from Notra Turlock, Code Name Kindred Spirit: Inside the Chinese Nuclear Espionage Scandal (2002) [combined snippets]:

Warren Rudman, a former U.S. senator, was Clinton's appointee as chairman of the PFIAB [President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board]. ... In conservative political circles, he was commonly known as a RINO, "Republican in name only." He left the Senate years earlier, but continued to hang around Washington serving on prestigious boards and blue-ribbon panels. He was the perfect selection to head Clinton's PFIAB. As a nominal Republican he gave Clinton top cover, but was certain to defend the White House at the end of the day.

Clinton appointed Rudman to the post in 1997, so if Turlock's account is to be trusted, RINO was already a commonplace "in conservative political circles" by 1997. Turlock doesn't mention that Rudman was vice chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate's special committee investigating the Iran/Contra affairs in 1987 (nor that he behaved with exemplary honesty and fairness in the course of that inquiry). But it seems likely that the hostile conservative characterization of Rudman as a "Republican in name only" dates to that year.

William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary, updated edition (2008) mentions RINOs in three separate places; but the dictionary doesn't provide a separate entry for the term, and both of the news articles it cites as using the term are from 2007.

In my memory, RINO emerged as a slang insult/acronym during Ronald Reagan's administration (1981–1989), but I haven't been able to find any mention of it from earlier than 1998, and I begin to suspect my memory of being unreliable on this point. So I have two questions:

  1. How old is the first confirmed use of RINO as a pejorative slang acronym for a member of the Republican party who is (in the view of the user of the term) insufficiently conservative?

  2. What are the circumstances surrounding that first recorded instance?

  • It's an interesting question! If I had world enough and time, I'd want to look into the mid-20th century fulminations of the far-right in southern California, perhaps in writings emanating from the John Birch society. Like @Sven Yargs, I have a vestigial recollection of the term in the Reagan era, but wonder if it didn't catch on during the heyday of Barry Goldwater.
    – Rob_Ster
    Nov 10 '17 at 16:34

A search on newspapers.com pushes the earliest date back a little bit further, to January and February of 1994, still in contexts that imply that the term was well-known in conservative circles, to the extent that it was apparently printed on buttons distributed at campaign events, including at the 1994 California State Republican Convention (see the final source cited below).

WordSpy attests the acronym in 1992 in a New Hampshire newspaper. I have not been able to find this source, but as quoted in WordSpy:

The Republicans were moving out and the Democrats and “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only) were moving in.

  • 1992 - John DiStaso, “Merrill Taps Scamman, Strome and a Thomson,” The Union Leader (Manchester, NH), Dec. 31

The term seemed to show up in various newspapers in the early months of 1994 in separate contexts.

The context in the first article describes Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan praising Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, a Democrat and former mayor of Denver, for his work in getting L.A. transportation moving after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, though like the sources cited in the question, it implies earlier uses in conservative circles that had been dogging the politician.

[Richard] Riordan, who has lavished praise on Democrats including President Clinton and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, jokes about his being labeled a "RINO": Republican in Name Only.

Wikipedia also mentions Riordan in its entry on "Republicans In Name Only," claiming that campaign buttons featuring a rhinoceros image with a slash through it appeared as early as 1992. The Wikipedia editors claim that the acronym emerged "in the 1990's"

Buttons featuring the red slash through an image of a rhinoceros were spotted in the New Hampshire State House as early as 1992. In 1993, former Marine and future California Republican Assembly President Celeste Greig distributed buttons featuring a red slash over the word RINO to express opposition to Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan. The term came into widespread usage during subsequent election cycles.

The next two print uses found on newspapers.com appear within a month of this first.

A relative political novice, [Rep. Michael] Huffington, a first-term congressman, remains non-plussed by the bashing from conservatives who have booed him and distributed buttons reading RINO, for Republicans In Name Only.

The third article, chronologically, refers to criticism of Richard Nelson, a former national director of "Republicans for Clinton," who then ran a political consulting firm that was being criticized by fellow Republicans. Thes critics proposed a resolution at the California GOP Convention to deny business to his firm.

The resolution failed. But by convention's end, many delegates wore buttons that said "RINO" — Republicans In Name Only — with a slash through it.

The sudden appearance of the term being defined in these newspapers seems to indicate that the term was "hot," possibly growing in use, around this time, but it does not establish when the term first came into use in conservative circles, and it neither supports nor refutes the suggestion that the term was used as early as the Reagan administration.

  • 1
    Thanks for this very well-presented research. The Republican party's "Contract with America"—which represented a fairly sharp right turn in party orthodoxy—appeared in 1994, which matches nicely with the growing awareness of RINO that the articles you found attest to. Whether RINO was an underground term in the hard right wing of the party a decade before is an open question, but I am now fairly well persuaded that my memory of its being used in the late 1980s in the venues I was exposed to is probably false.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 10 '17 at 18:11

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