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The OED's entry and earliest citation for tops are:

plural tops n. (also at tops) at the most, at the latest. Usually finally. colloquial (originally and chiefly U.S.).

1956 ‘B. Holiday’ & W. Dufty Lady sings Blues xii. 129 So she was only thirty-eight when she died. I'm going to do the same thing. I'm staying thirty-eight myself, maybe forty tops.

I don't see an OED citation illustrating "at the latest."

tops adverb

At the very most

will cost $50, tops m-w

in American English

Slang
ADVERB

At most
It'll take us a year, tops Collins

I was surprised to see that this informal meaning could be first documented only to 1956. Searching in Google Books for tops and at tops with this sense involves going through a lot hits for other meanings. In addition, it is used primarily in speech. However, I was able to find earlier examples (both reporting speech) including:

"At least two-thirds of what I gave him was a loan, and the total was $4500 or $5000 at tops," Mr. Gilbert said. Indianapolis Times, May 19, 1939

Q. Nothing was said to Ancrum, is that right?
A. It is only probably one minute from where we arrested him to the station house, maybe two at tops, at most.
Q. You know you can say plenty in a minute or two—but nothing was said?
A. Nothing was said.
N.Y. Court of Appeals. Records and Briefs, p.3631 (1941)

This redundant "at tops, at most" could be the speaker's uncertainty about "at tops" being understood.

I'm interested in learning the current status of this informal tops outside the U.S., as well as earlier print examples.

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GDoS shows early usage from late ‘20s. More recent examples are from AusE but the expression appears to be mainly used in AmE:

tops adv. [SE at a top estimate]

at the most, at the top estimate, e.g. five years tops, ten quid tops.

1928 [US] J. O’Connor Broadway Racketeers 186: The toughest rap ever registered brought, at tops, a six month’s bit.

1938 [US] D. Runyon *‘Pick the Winner’ in Runyon on Broadway (1954) 322: The professor does not seem anxious to bet a sawbuck, tops.

———-

2021 [Aus] C. Hammer Opal Country 196: ‘[T]en minutes tops’.

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  • Excellent. GDoS has "Midnight, tops," an example of at the latest. The OED's earliest struck me as quite late.
    – DjinTonic
    Feb 24, 2022 at 16:42

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