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Historical Highlights

The Publication of the Congressional Record

March 05, 1873
The Publication of the <em>Congressional Record</em> Image courtesy of Library of Congress Representative Joseph W. Byrns, Jr., of Tennessee holds a fresh copy of the Congressional Record.
On this date, the Government Printing Office (GPO) published the first issue of the Congressional Record, detailing House and Senate proceedings from the prior legislative day. Although both houses kept minutes in their respective Journal, the appearance of an official, full transcript of legislative activity ended an 84-year debate about how best to compile congressional proceedings. Since 1789, Congress had lacked a verbatim record of its daily events. Initially, the House and Senate each accredited a select group of reporters who often wrote for partisan presses, or for the “recognized organ” of the party in power. Throughout the nineteenth century, these "short-lived publications" jockeyed to become Congress’s official record. But two mainstays, the Register of Debates and the Congressional Globe, began a half-century competition for official approval. In 1825, reporters Joseph Gales, Jr. (Senate) and William W. Seaton (House) compiled their daily notes into the Register of Debates, a substantial but incomplete record of Congress from 1824 to1837. The Register’s popularity led Gales and Seaton to assemble the Annals of Congress, a 42-volume set of congressional proceedings covering the years 1789–1824. Having culled sources from the Journals and newspapers, and after petitioning Members for speeches, Gales and Seaton earned praise for the Annals. President Jackson’s administration criticized the Register, however, accusing it of favoring anti-Jackson and Whig politicians. To compete with the Register, a popular startup paper called the Congressional Globe, compiled by former printers Francis Preston Blair and John Cook Rives, began what would become a long publication run, surpassing the Register. By the late 1840s, new technology had changed reporting. With the advent of precise shorthand transcription in 1848, many debates were printed in full. As accuracy improved, Members and Senators made the Congressional Globe their official organ, even though it remained a private publication. After the Civil War, Congress authorized the GPO to take over its publication, and changed its name to the Congressional Record; the Globe’s reporters remained on staff. The New York Times lauded the Record’s first volume, noting that it was “decidedly neat in appearance and convenient in shape.” Reporting in the Record stayed much the same until 1941, when Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas ordered color commentary removed from its pages. Rayburn reasoned that the annotations “applause,” “loud applause,” “laughter,” and “boisterous laughter” did not affect the course of debate and were therefore not germane to the official record.

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