When is the first documented usage of the joke, "What time is it? Time for you to get a watch!"? At what point in history would most English-speakers know this joke, meaning, if you stopped a random person on the street in the U.S. or U.K., would the vast majority of those you spoke to know the joke? The 1800s? The 1900s? Later?
One early relative of this joke is "What time is it when a clock strikes thirteen?" [Answer: "Time to get a new clock."] A related form is "What time is it when an elephant sits on a fence?" (Answer: "Time to get a new fence"), which appears in Bennett Cerf's Book for Riddles (1960).
The clock striking thirteen seems to be quite old. For example, it appears in a list of joke riddles in Inside Track, volumes 14–15 (1935):
- What time is it when the clock strikes 13?
- Time to get a new clock.
And eleven years earlier, in James Lawson, The World's Best Conundrums and Riddles of All Ages (1924):
When the clock strikes 13 what time is it? Time to have the clock repaired.
Ans 12 years before that, in "Riddles," in The Journal of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builder and Helpers of America (October 1, 1912):
When the clock strikes 13 what time is it? Time for it to be repaired.
And ten years before that, in "Conundrums," in The Leisure Hour: An Illustrated Magazine for Home Reading (1903):
What time is it when the clock strikes thirteen? Time the clock was fixed.
And 20 years before that, in "The New System of Time," in the [Idaho Springs] Colorado Mining Gazette (December 1, 1883):
Several years ago I received a letter from a friend in the states containing this question. "What is the time when the clock strikes 13?" After puzzling my brain over the conundrum for several days, and arriving at no solution of the vexed question, I brought to my aid the fertile brain of my lamented friend Beebee, who solved the problem by saying "it was time the d——d clock was repaired."
And five years before that in "Pleasantries," in the [Mount Pleasant,Michigan] Isabella County Enterprise (February 27, 1878):
What time is it when the clock strikes 13? Time to get it fixed.
And five months before that, in an untitled item in the Richmond [Virginia] Dispatch (September 1, 1877), reprinted from the Port Chester Journal:
A man took his clock to a Port Chester clock-repairer and asked him, ""What time is it when this time-piece strikes thirteen times?" "Time it's repaired," replied the man of time.
So the lineage of "What time is it?"/"Time to get a [new] watch" arguably stretches back almost 150 years in the print record, to early instances of "What time is it when a clock strikes 13?"/"Time get the clock repaired."
As for the exact wording "What time is it?"/"Time to get [or buy] a new watch," the earliest matches are much more recent. Google Books matches begin to appear only around 2007–2008. From Daniel Williams,"Contemporary Ills," Other Voices from the Middle East Clipboard, volume 9 (2006):
A tourist on a crowded street asks her companion what time it is, and a vendor of fake Rolexes comes from behind and whispers, "It's time to buy a watch."
And from M. Sindy Felin, Touching Snow (2007):
"Nothing," I said. "What time is it?"
"Time to get a watch," she said, then as I headed to the door, she asked, "Where are you going?"
And from Jason Joseph & Rick Joseph, 101 Ways to Flip the Bird (2008):
When some poor schmuck asks you what time it is you can tell them it's time to buy a watch.
Update (February 7, 2023)—a significantly earlier instance of the wording asked about
Although the instance didn't show up in my Google Books search result, user 66974 (in a now-deleted answer to this question) notes a significantly earlier instance of the "time to get a watch" response. From Rob Lovitt, "The Crack of Noon Club," in Backpacker (August 1991):
The key to moving slowly is napping. Let's say you're sitting on a mountain-top on the verge of a major nap attack, and your companion suddenly asks, "What time is it?" You could get sarcastic and say, "Time for you to get a watch." Or you could get philosophical and say, "We're on mountain time, and there is no time in the mountains." Or you could just ignore the worm-chaser and simply say, "Zzzzzz."
So "Time to get a watch" has been a snappy comeback for at least 33 years, at least in some parts of the English-speaking world. I might add that an earlier common idiomatic form of asking someone what time it is in U.S. English was "Do you have the time?"—which undoubtedly spawned numerous responses along the lines of "That depends. Do you have the money, honey?" or, more simply, "The time to do what?"