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I recently learned about the phrase "over-the-road trucking", which is commonly used in the US to refer to long-distance trucking (normally with large semi-trailer trucks) as opposed to smaller trucks making short-distance deliveries.

However, I'm uncertain about the origin of this phrase and how it came to mean long-distance trucking. After all, unless the truck is offroading, all trucking is "over-the-road". Merriam-Webster unhelpfully defines the etymology as:

from the phrase over the road

How did this phrase originate?

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  • Let's start with a definition, which seems to have eluded a lot of people. OTRs are the tramp steamers of the highway system. "Over-the-road (OTR) A driver or carrier who transports cargo to any place at any time, without prescribed schedules or routes. Long-Haul OTR involves being away for weeks, or months at a time, often cross-country or international (Canada and Mexico), given the unscheduled nature of their routes."en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 22:06

3 Answers 3

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The expression over-the-road dates back to the 40s:

1940s; earliest use found in The Sun. (Lexico.com)

It was in those years that the first long distance and interstate roads were built, and the concept of “over the road” conveyed the idea of long distances.

In 1944 – while World War II was still going on – Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, and committed the nation to building a modern, four-lane interstate highway system across the country. The highway administration mapped out 40,000 miles of interstate.

Trucks. One of the arguments for the interstate highway system was that it would help farmers get their produce from rural areas to city markets quickly and efficiently. Ironically, trucks have never been able to match the low per ton per mile cost of railroads in transporting food. But the speed and flexibility of trucks won the battle for farm to market transportation.

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(livinghistoryfarm.org)

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    That's interesting. Although "over-the-road trucking" does not exist in British English, "over the road" does not have this meaning at all - in fact, quite the opposite. It is either literal (on the other side of the road) or figurative "a very short distance."
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 12:52
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Interesting turn of phrase, over-the-road trucking, you wouldn't think it meant long distance driving. In British English “over the road”, without hyphens, would refer to a precise place, e.g. Have you been to the pub over the road? Meaning there's a good pub on the other side of the road.

I must admit to never having heard of its American meaning until today. I doubt I will ever use it, but next time I come across it, I'll know better.

By Googling, I unearthed the following snippets

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source: The Termination Report of the National War Labor Board: 1942-1945

November 26 1943
Opinion
The instant case concerning over-the-road trucking was certified to the War Labor Board on November 23 1942. Thereafter it was assigned to the Trucking Commission for hearing and decision A hearing was held on February 5 1943…

An earlier instance was reported in the 1920s, which might indicate how the term came to be coined

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On October 9, 1926, in conference with Mr. Albright, he said. “The Cooke road can go to hell as far as I am concerned; as long as Doctor Tanzier operates his trucks over the road I will never spend another cent on it.” I told him that I knew he had a personal quarrel with Doctor Tanzier, but that his attitude was rather hard on the rest of us. He answered “Well that is the way I feel about it.” Doctor Tanzier heads a company that this year has completed a copper smelter in the district.

and in 1927

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No other purpose for the road was suggested. My own opinion is that on account of the steep grades and the large number of switchbacks which would have to be made in certain portions of the road, the hauling of freight over the road at the best season of the year would be a difficult task

Driving trucks over the road, suggest a public major road. Wikipedia tells us the plans for building a highway system in the USA was first created in 1922.

In the US, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 (Phipps Act) enacted a fund to create an extensive highway system. In 1922, the first blueprint for a national highway system (the Pershing Map) was published.

From trucks travelling/driving over the road in the 1920s to the 1940s over-the-road trucking the distance was brief.

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Over-the-road trucking appears to come from the literal meaning of the words as you have found, although this particular phrasing is not as common nowadays compared to on the roads or by road (or using road attributively, as in road trip). Consider some 19th-century examples from Google Books and COHA:

One or more of the most trustworthy among them had only to make a tour over the road, and through the hamlets in which they were harbored within the circuit of ten or twenty miles. — Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia, William Gilmore Simms, 1834

The horse and the wagon, bearing its charming freight of two pretty girls, moved swiftly and safely over the road to the Beach. — Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington and Others of the Family, B.P. Shillaber (ed.), 1854

The train shrieked into the station, and we were soon rushing over the road to New Haven…. — An American Girl Abroad, Adeline Trafton, 1880

[T]he vegetables were bruised and rendered less valuable, and their value impaired, by hauling over the road. — Galveston H&SA Railway Co. v. Baudat, Court of Civil Appeals of Texas, May 18, 1899

As for truck, that word in reference to a small sled or barrow for carrying a heavy weight dates to at least the 17th century according to the OED, and as a verb meaning to convey by truck from the late 19th century (not to be conflated with the sense of truck referring to commerce or trade).

1891 The Echo 10 Mar. 3/2 — On the quays..the snow is a foot deep, and trucking from the sheds to the ship has been delayed.

1909 Dundee Advertiser 24 Nov. 7 — Miners..have struck work owing to a difference with the management regarding the trucking of coal.

When horseless trucks first appeared, frequently distinguished as auto trucks or motor trucks, they were not suitable for more than deliveries around town. The state of automotive engineering was primitive in that era, but even more so was what passed for intercity roads in the U.S. and Canada, compared against the extensive network of canals and railroads built over the previous century.

As such, I believe over the road became a fixed expression because it was a novel mode when such hauling began in earnest during World War I, when the railroads were heavily congested and could not keep up with demand. The OED's earliest attestation for over-the-road in reference to long-distance freight transportation by road is from 1945:

1945 Baltimore Sun 24 Oct. 14-0/8 Approximately 1500 members of Local 557, Freight Drivers and Helpers..yesterday went on strike which threatens to halt..practically all over-the-road, inter-city hauling into and out of Baltimore.

The long-haul road transportation industry did not really flourish until the construction of the Interstate Highway System starting in the 1950s, and that is when trucking became trucking as we know it today.

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