The origin of the term "fall guy" is unknown and contentious. Many sources place its origin in the early 20th century, while some claim an earlier origin. In April 2007, William Safire promoted a search to unearth its origins.
The most likely origin of "fall guy" is a derivation of the slang 'fall' which means to be arrested, so the fall guy is generally the one who is arrested. However, four slightly different usages for "fall guy" survive and their origins are probably different. These usages are:
An innocent scapegoat is unjustly punished for another's action.
A guilty scapegoat takes the blame for the actions of a group.
A dupe takes the butt of jokes.
A worker who takes on the responsibilities of others.
The phrase may have multiple, separate origins. Criminal usage goes back to the original sense of "felon" (derived from fallen, morally).
Other alternatives and citations
The term "fall guy" appears in an April 26, 1903 Chicago Tribune article "PLOT TO DEFEAT MUELLER BILL"
Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS) places the origin in 1904 (although it is apparently missing citations for 1906). The usage here may have a flavor relating more to the innocent rather than the guilty scapegoat.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) places the origin in 1906 (Green At Actors' Boarding House 226). The usage here conforms to that of the guilty scapegoat.
In the New York Times: This article is concurrent with the OED citation (no within year dates for OED citation yet found).
The Online Etymological Dictionary places the origin at 1906. The actual passage they cite is unstated, although probably citing the OED.
Gary Martin dates the origin to at least 1904 (Oakland Tribune, Dec 1904) although possibly earlier. Although the citation Martin provides shades meaning more closely to "one who takes on the responsibilities or workload of others" (this sense seems analogous to the modern phrase "delegate down") than to the more criminal connotation. He also makes a connection to the phrase "fall money" that existed in late 19th-century American idiom. If fall guy derives from "fall money", then this may be the earliest possibility.
"POOLROOM SHARPS SWOOP ON BASEBALL; Crippled Badly by Race Track Legislation, Gamblers Turn to National Game." The phrase "fall guy" here refers, apparently, to a sucker who makes bets at bad odds. There is a reference to being unable (or finding it difficult) to hedge bets against a "'Dutch book – with reverse English." No guilt is associated with the fall guy, only gullibility.
The phrase was in prominent usage by at least 1930, when Hammett published The Maltese Falcon. Hammett adopts the guilty scapegoat interpretation.
Various compiled glossaries:
New York Times: An article about John Wilstach included a jargon dictionary has both 'fall guy' and 'fall money', implying that phrases were well known by then.
Possibly arose from hobo lingo predating the 20th century. Alternatively, they may have picked it up from the criminal classes.
Definition from American Underworld Dictionary gives slightly different meanings: 1. Any person, guilty or innocent (emphasis added), who takes full blame to shield others. 2. A fool; a bungling criminal; a stupid tool of crafty criminals. "These stirs (prisons) are full of fall guys and squares (accidental criminals). All the hip (smart) ghees (fellows) hit the counties (country jails) or the street (win acquittals or bribe their way out)".
The New York Times also referred to the "butt of jokes" with no criminal connotation.
In 19th century professional wrestling, claims ignificantly predates other origins, so claims must be met with scrutiny and skepticism, demanding a citation.
A Voice of America radio broadcast transcript supports this position, but proper supporting citations are not yet found.
Another hypothesis puts its origins with the rising film industry; thus, the "fall guy" was a stock character.
Legitimization occurred in the 1940s, primarily with the meaning of "take on work/responsibility". A paper on "Isolationism is not dead" quotes an anonymous editorial from a paper in the Pacific Northwest on the topic of the Bretton Woods and the Food Conferences upon which the US became the "fall guy, the one to carry the load". By 1950 in the context of unions and industrial society, the term referred to the low man on the totem poll, to whom the unpleasant tasks would be assigned, specifically that of filling out questionnaires.
By the 1950s and 1960s, "fall guy" came to mean public "whipping boy" in the abstract, metaphorical sense. In a 1960 paper called the "Politics of Pollution", Robert Bulard writes public officials, to deflect criticism over landfills, found a "fall guy", but they blamed abstract, faceless bodies: "the federal government, state governments and private disposal companies" rather than an individual. Other abstract 'fall guys' included the railroad and bank capital. Use of the political "fall guy" is exemplified in the following three events:
The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: Oswald was not commonly referred to as a "fall guy" until 1964 when Joachim Joesten used the term in his book title Oswald, Assassin or Fall Guy?. Oswald “was ‘a fall guy’" to use the parlance of the kind of men who must have planned the details of the assassination”.
The Watergate Scandal: Former Attorney General John Mitchell claimed he was being set up as a "fall guy". In Public Doublespeak: On Mistakes and Misjudgments Terence Moran uses the term in reference to a transcript of both Richard Nixon and Dean. He also cites a scene from The Maltese Falcon, in which Wilmer, the gunman is sold out.
Iran Contra Scandal: The term entered into public consciousness, if not quite into everyday parlance. Before this scandal Richard Safire seems to have kept the phrase alive. The phrase's use increased after Iran-Contra in 1987; Representative Louis Stokes' used the phrase during a session of Congress in regard to Oliver North's steadfastness and loyalty during the hearings.
In corporate managerial classes, by 1988 the "fall guy" was institutionalized as a principle, a component of what every good manager needed.[page needed]