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Escort was originally a military and masculine term:

1570s, in military sense, from Middle French escorte (16c.), from Italian scorta.

which was used figuratively from the first half of the 20th century:

The sense of "person accompanying another to a social occasion" is 1936.

Etymonline

From the latter sense, probably, the more recent connotation of prostitute:

c. A person, often a prostitute, who is hired to spend time with another as a companion. (AHD)

(American English) a prostitute, especially one who goes to social events or on trips with the person who pays them. (Longman Dict.)

It is not clear when this euphemism for prostitute caught on. In Italy, for instance, the usage of the term escort became common just a couple of decades ago, when Berlusconi was in power, because of his many “affairs” with girls.

EDIT:

Following a few comments suggesting that the term escort is not commonly used in the context of prostitution, I add this related link:

Escort Agency

  • An Escort agency is a company that provides escorts for clients, usually for sexual services.

Questions:

When did the term escort start to be used to refer to prostitutes?

Was it originally an AmE usage?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 15 '18 at 17:54
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OED sense 2b, is the one to which @Ricky refers of a man who accompanies a woman to a dance etc. The first reference is from 1936.

2b. A person (usually a man) accompanying a woman to a dance, party, etc.

1936 Literary Digest 12 Dec. 29/1 The escort merely announces himself downstairs at the client's address and presently she appears.

1946 K. Tennant Lost Haven (1947) xvii. 267 Miss O'Shea was drinking ginger-beer and her escort had a shandy.

1955 T. Sterling Evil of Day viii. 95 The forget-me-not corsage..she had bought for herself, explaining to her escort that gardenias gave her a headache.

1955 J. P. Donleavy Ginger Man xii. 123 I've just walked into a bar, and I was frightened to death that the barman would tell me that women without escorts couldn't come in.

However a "draft addition" to the OED dated 2006, refers to the use of "escort" as a euphemism for "prostitute". The first two citations seem to apply to the sense of 2b above. It is only the examples from 1941 on that seem to reflect the prostitute sense.

A person hired through an agency to provide companionship or (esp. in later use) to act as a sexual partner; (euphem.) a prostitute. Frequently attrib., as escort agency, escort girl, escort service, etc.

1874 Bucks County (Pa.) Gaz. 14 May 2/3 She must go to the Escort Bureau and pay the price... A first-class dancing man brings five dollars... A theatre escort brings only two dollars.

1924 Los Angeles Times 9 Jan. iii. 1/4 When a damsel is seized with a sudden desire to attend a cabaret or hotel dinner-dance, all she will have to do is call the nearest escort agency.

1941 Los Angeles Times 27 May ii. 20/6 Another member of the [vice] squad, also had an escort girl sent to the hotel... She..took off all her clothes and got into bed.

1953 Chicago Tribune 14 Sept. i. 2/5 Some of the ring's female ‘escorts’ were young women who held jobs as stenografers and typists during day hours, and turned to prostitution at night.

1997 E. White Farewell Symphony (1998) vi. 257 I was so desperate..that I ordered up a hustler. In a gay paper I'd seen an ad for an escort agency.

2004 Federal Reporter 3rd Ser. 378 1286 A web-based escort service which allowed customers to select a particular prostitute from pictures posted on a website.

  • 1
    interesting citation from the OED, which probably needs an update. – user067531 Aug 14 '18 at 6:43
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    @1006a Ah! You are quite right. I didn't see that. I will amend my answer accordingly. Thanks for the prompt. – WS2 Aug 14 '18 at 18:47
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    @Mitch You will note from my edits that the position has moved on. Another commenter has pointed out an OED "draft addition" of 2006, which I didn't previously see. Apologies to all concerned. – WS2 Aug 14 '18 at 18:57

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