noun earlier than 1960
The tribal practice of decapitating enemies and preserving their heads gave us the first sense of headhunter around 1800. Nowadays we’re more likely to think of the less gruesome recruitment practice of targeting highly skilled or experienced personnel. The evidence suggests that this sense emerged in the United States, where our first example of headhunter, in 1960, comes from:
1960 Harold Wentworth & Stuart Berg Flexner Dictionary of American Slang 248/2
The executive type of headhunter was surely active prior to the word appearing in this slang dictionary. Can you find any earlier examples?
From an article called "The Secret Mines of Russia's Germany" in Life Magazine of September 25, 1950:
The recruiting agents had nothing to complain about; their dirty trade was paid well. In the first place, they got the average wage of their last their last three months' work in the mines, along with double food rations and a bonus for every recruit they brought in, which earned them the fitting name of "head-hunters."
I think I've found a 1946, in a US radio discussion transcript. I found it in a snippet via Google Books, and I couldn't find a full version available online to confirm, but have excavated some extra info that makes the year seem plausible.
Here's the quote:
SANDOVAL: There is also a vicious method of recruiting people known as the "head-hunter" method. It works this way. Handbills are circulated in the community from which recruitment is made, with misleading statements urging the people to come to the "land of milk and honey." This is done by some local, glib, high-pressure salesman who gets a per capita payment or so much per head for each one he finally delivers to the food processors in Colorado.
It's from Northwestern University on the Air, the Reviewing Stand, Volume 7, published by Northwestern University Radio Department, 1946.
It's a radio discussion with: "Speakers: E. E. Scannell; Don Sandoval; James H. McBurnley; Moderator: A. J. Hamman; Phillip Smith."
Hamman, A. H., et al."The Social Consequences of Migratory Labor; a Radio Discussion." Reviewing Stand, September 22, 1946, pp. 1-12.
(Here's a link to Northwestern University Library if you want to check with them.)
The current earliest dating in the OED for the original head-as-a-trophy meaning is 1853. For good measure, here's an April 1800 example from a "Description of the Island of Borneo" by Mr. Von Wurmb in The Philosophical Magazine:
The fortunate head-hunter receives presents from all the company, who dance and afterwards partake of a repast. At the fame time some food is thrust into the mouth of the head, and a little drink is poured into it; after which it is hung up as a perpetual trophy of victory.