President Harry S. Truman frequently used the phrase "the buck stops here." This phrase and idea have come to be closely connected to President Truman and the way he ran his administration. Where did this phrase come from and what does it mean?
The sign "The Buck Stops Here" that was on President Truman's desk in his White House office was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma. Fred A. Canfil, then United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and a friend of Mr. Truman, saw a similar sign while visiting the Reformatory and asked the Warden if a sign like it could be made for President Truman. The sign was made and mailed to the President on October 2, 1945.
President Truman's secretary, Rose Conway, sent a thank you note to Mr. Schilder for the sign shortly after the White House received it.
Approximately 2.5 inches x 13 inches in size and mounted on a walnut base, the painted glass sign has the words "I'm From Missouri" on the reverse side. It appeared at different times on his desk until late in his administration.
The saying "the buck stops here" derives from the slang expression "pass the buck" which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. The latter expression is said to have originated with the game of poker, in which a marker or counter, frequently in frontier days a knife with a buckhorn handle, was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the "buck," as the counter came to be called, to the next player.
The bottom of the sign, which is rarely seen, is painted with "El Reno," the name of the prison that made the sign. The name of the inmate who made the sign is unknown.
On more than one occasion President Truman referred to the desk sign in public statements. In his farewell address, he said: "The greatest part of the President's job is to make decisions--big ones and small ones, dozens of them almost every day. The papers may circulate around the Government for a while but they finally reach this desk. And then, there's no place else for them to go. The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job."
After he left office, Mr. Truman ensured that the sign would be on exhibit at his Presidential library and museum. Here Mr. Truman is sitting in the Oval Office replica in the Library, shortly before it opened, with the sign on the desk.
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum