History of the National Press Club

Perched atop the National Press Building within sight of the White House and just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. Capitol, the National Press Club is the meeting place in Washington for newsmakers and journalists.  Through its doors have come presidents, premiers, kings and queens, Cabinet secretaries, senators and House members, movie stars and sports heroes, titans of business and finance – a who’s who of the 20th and the 21st centuries - eager to share their views on current events with the media and the public.

Mission

The National Press Club is the World’s Leading Professional Organization for Journalists™. It serves its members through professional development activities that bolster their skills, through services that meet the changing needs of the global communications profession and through social activities that build a vital media community in Washington and around the world. The Club is where news happens in the nation’s capital and is a vigorous advocate of press freedom worldwide.

History

It all began on a cold, blustery February day in 1908 when a one-legged reporter for the old Washington Times by the name of Graham Nichol crossed 14th Street on crutches and met a colleague, James Hay. “I’m getting tired of having to hunt a stuffy, ill-ventilated little hall room in a cheap boarding house every time I want to play a game of poker,” Nichol exclaimed. “Hells bells, why don’t we get up a press club? A place where the fellows can take a drink or turn a card when they feel like it.”

“How? Where?” Hay responded through chattering teeth. “I don’t know and I don’t give a damn where,” Nichol replied. “But all the same, we’re going to have a club.” And he hobbled to the pressroom at police headquarters on 12th Street and started collecting signatures of reporters willing to plunk down $10 each to get the Club started.

On March 12, 1908, 32 newspapermen with $300 in their treasury and promises of support from 200 of their colleagues decided that a press club was feasible and elected officers to look into it. Meeting just 17 days later in the F Street Parlor of the Willard Hotel, they framed a constitution for what they called the National Press Club.

By May, the Club had rented two floors above a jewelry story at 1205 F St. NW and threw a housewarming party that drew not only hundreds of journalists but several members of Congress, diplomats and Buffalo Bill Cody.

Then-Vice President Harry Truman and Lauren Bacall at the National Press Club in 1945.
Then-Vice President Harry Truman and Lauren Bacall at the National Press Club in 1945.

Right from the beginning the Club attracted noted figures of the era. Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin and Andrew Carnegie dropped by in those early days.

William Howard Taft became the first president to visit the Club when he hoisted his 300-pound body up the stairs on New Year’s Day 1910. He gave the bartender a rosebud from his lapel in exchange for a glass of water. Former President Theodore Roosevelt stopped by to tell of his exploits hunting big game in Africa and hint he may run again in 1912. Woodrow Wilson visited often. He once said the Club was the one place in town where he could relax – something hard to imagine in today’s adversarial environment. Warren Harding, who was a newspaper publisher before he went into politics, voted in Club elections.

During a World War II canteen for servicemen, then vice president Harry Truman played an upright piano while movie actress Lauren Becall sat on top and draped her long legs seductively over the side to the soldiers – and photographers – delight.

As the Club rapidly expanded, it outgrew its first three homes. In the 1920s, the Club’s board decided to build a high-rise office building with the Club at the top. It would be filled with the Washington bureaus then scattered along 14th and F Streets known as Newspaper Row. President Calvin Coolidge laid the cornerstone, and the 14-story building – the largest private office building in Washington at the time -- opened in December 1927 with a spacious Club on the top two floors. In the early 1980s, the building was torn down to its girders and rebuilt while the Club kept functioning. In 2006, the Club added a Broadcast Operations Center that shoots and transmits news and events around the world.

NPC members vote to admit women in 1971.
NPC members vote to admit women in 1971.

It’s hard to imagine now, but the Club excluded women until 1971. In retaliation, women journalists began their own Club, the Women’s National Press Club, in 1919, the same year women got the right to vote. That club developed its own lively program, especially with the help of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It became famous for its annual “Salute to Congress” dinner. It fought the National Press Club for access to its speakers, and in 1959 it convinced Nikita Khrushchev not to speak at the NPC unless women were admitted. They were – for that one event. When the NPC finally voted to admit women, the women’s club changed its name to the Washington Press Club and admitted men. They remained rival clubs until they merged in 1985.

When President-elect Franklin Roosevelt spoke in 1932 he began what has become the newsmaker luncheon series that has attracted thousands of leaders to the Club’s podium including Khrushchev (who explained what he meant by “We will bury you”), Madame Chiang Kai Shek, Charles deGaulle, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Boris Yeltsin, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and the Dalai Lama. Iranian President President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the Club and took questions by two-way satellite hook up in 2007.

Some historians believe the Club may have played a role in launching the Korean War. In January 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson outlined America’s “defense perimeter” in the Far East during a Club luncheon but did not include South Korea. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin may have taken that as a green light to arm the North Koreans to invade the South.

Both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter announced their presidential bids at the Club, and George W. Bush introduced his national security team during the 2000 election. When Sen. Barack Obama visited the Club in 2006, he joined actor George Clooney in a press conference about Darfur.

Beginning in 1994, CBS news legend Marvin Kalb launched a series of television forums that probe the craft of journalism. He has questioned such journalism luminaries as CBS anchors Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Katie Couric, CNN international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, investigative reporters Seymour Hersh and Dana Priest, AP President Tom Curly and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch.

On any given day now, the Club is bustling with press conferences, newsmaker events, forums and professional training. Hundreds of people pass through the Club daily looking to make news and to get news, looking for professional advancement and looking for fellowship. Members enjoy the restaurants – and yes, Graham Nichol would be pleased that the card room is still open.

CBS Commentator Eric Severeid summed up what the Club means to its members. Speaking in 1982 in the ballroom where so many events had taken place, he called the Club the “sanctum sanctorum of American journalists … It’s Westminster Hall, it’s Delphi, it’s Mecca… the Wailing Wall for everybody in this country having anything to do with the news business; the only hallowed place I know that’s absolutely bursting with irreverence.”

Fun Facts
























How it all began
On March 12, 1908, 32 newspapermen with $300 in their treasury and promises of support from 200 of their colleagues decided to create a private club for reporters to socialize and talk shop. Meeting just 17 days later in the parlor of the Willard Hotel, they framed a constitution for what they called “The National Press Club.” There were 34 original members. The first NPC president was William P. Spurgeon, a reporter at The Washington Post.

The National Press Building
The current home of the National Press Club is its fourth. The first location was on the 2nd floor of a jewelry store at 1205 F Street, which lasted only a year (1908-1909) as the Club expanded rapidly and had to move to larger space in a building at the corner of 15th & F Streets, known as the Rhodes Tavern (1909-1914). From 1914 to 1927, the Club was located in the Albee-Riggs Bank Building at 15th & G Streets. In the early 1920’s, the Club’s board proposed to build a high-rise (14 story) office building with a new National Press Club at the top. The concept was to create a singular home for the many Washington bureaus of newspaper offices which at that time were scattered along 14th and F Streets known as Newspaper Row. The new National Press Building opened in December, 1927 and was the largest private office building in Washington at the time - with a spacious National Press Club on the top two floors. The National Press Building is the only private office building in the nation with its own zip code (20045).

The National Press Club Lobby
The walls in the main lobby are decorated with leather mats of historic major American newspaper front pages dating back to the 1800’s, which include some of the most iconic headlines in history, including:


  • “War! Oahu bombed by Japanese Planes” (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Dec. 7, 1941)

  • “Today is V-E Day” (New York Herald Tribune, May 8, 1945)

  • “Nixon Resigns” (Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1974,)

  • “Polio is Conquered” (Pittsburgh Press, April12, 1955)
     

Speakers Hall (Ballroom Corridor, 13th Floor)
Features autographed headshots of recent and past speakers appearing at the Press Club, including Donald Trump, Alec Baldwin, Ken Burns, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Colin Powell, Louis Armstrong, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali, Sharon Stone, Benjamin Netanyahu and many more. Also featured are National Geographic photographer Donald J. Crump’s photograph of “The Last Salute” and a selection of George Tames historical works including “The Loneliest Job in the World”, “Turkey Shoot”, “Hitting the Wall” and “Johnson Treatment”.

Awards Hall (South Corridor, 13th Floor)
Features photos of past winners of the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award such as Walter Cronkite (CBS News), Helen Thomas (UPI), Simeon Booker(Johnson Publications), Christiane Amanpour (CNN), Tom Brokaw (NBC News) and Bob Woodward (The Washington Post). Also displayed are previous recipients of the National Press Club's annual journalism awards, along with special collections such as Pulitzer Prize winning photographs.


Rooms & Event Spaces

The Ballroom
Home to the National Press Club’s signature Luncheon Speaker Series, where presidents, kings, queens, prime ministers, Cabinet members, governors, members of Congress and influential leaders in business, entertainment, sport and society share their views on significant topics and current events with the media and the public.

Holeman Lounge
Named after Frank Holeman, reporter and correspondent for the New York Daily News, who was Club president in 1956.

First Amendment Lounge
Named after the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press.

Bloomberg Room
Named after Michael Bloomberg, creator of Bloomberg wire service and former Mayor of New York City, who donated $100,000 to the Club’s library.

Murrow Room
Named after the legendary Edward R. Murrow who practically invented broadcast journalism as the head of the CBS News London bureau during World War II.

White Room
Named after Margaret Bourke-White, a renowned photojournalist.

Lisagor Room
Named after Peter Lisagor, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Daily News and one of the most respected and best-known journalists during his career in Washington.

Zenger Room
Named after Peter Zenger, a journalist in colonial New York, who was sued for libel by the British governor. The governor lost the case, which set the precedent that truth was a defense against libel charges.

Fourth Estate Room
Named after the nickname for journalism coined by Edmund Burke in Great Britain. It referred to the three “estates” of Parliament — the clergy, the nobility and the commons. Burke, noting reporters in the gallery covering his speech, said "there sat a fourth estate far more important than they all."

Winners Room
Named for the winners of the Club’s Fourth Estate Award, the lifetime achievement award for people who had contributed the most to the profession of journalism over a lifetime career.

The 14th Floor
The 14th Floor of the National Press Building is restricted to National Press Club Members Only. On display at the top of the stairs is an exact replica of the Norman Rockwell painting “Visit to a Country Editor” housed in the original artwork’s frame. The mural-like painting, which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1946, commemorates Rockwell's visit to the Monroe County Appeal, a small-town newspaper in Paris, Missouri. Rockwell took photos of the setting and then assembled the composition back in his studio, inserting himself into the painting. It is one of the rare Normal Rockwell paintings in which the artist is portrayed. The original artwork was donated to the NPC by Rockwell during a visit to the Club in the early 1970’s. The artwork was later sold by the Club via Christie’s Auction House for $10.2 million, with a portion of the proceeds going to support programs of the Press Club’s nonprofit Journalism Institute.

The Reliable Source
The Club’s Members-only Bar & Restaurant, where reporters and sources frequently meet for lunch or cocktails to talk about the issues of the day, background on stories and to build relationships... off the record, of course!

The Truman Lounge
In February of 1945, then Vice President Harry S. Truman visited the Club during one of the “NPC Canteens” for enlisted soldiers during WWII. The Vice President sat down to play the piano to entertain the troops. Movie star Lauren Bacall unexpectedly hopped on top of the piano to join in the revelry. The image was quickly captured by legendary photojournalist Max Desfor, and the photo originally published in the May 7, 1945 edition of Life Magazine. The photograph landed Truman in hot water with his wife Bess. The incident also led a new policy at the NPC which prohibits any photo or video being taken in the Members-only floor of the Club. (This policy still is still in effect - put away your iPhones!)

The President's Office
Each year the Press Club elects a new president, typically a working journalist, voted in by his or her peers for a one-year term. The president works out of the 14th Floor of the Club, overseeing all programming of Club events, committee functions and leadership roles, including oversight of the Board of Governors who manage the NPC’s membership and business operations. More information on the current president is here and a list of past National Press Club past presidents is available here.

Presidential Hall
The 14th floor corridor features a series of photos taken of past, sitting and future Presidents of the United States. Among the highlights is Associated Press photograph Henry Burroughs unpublished photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt seated in his wheelchair on the House floor in 1945. William H. Taft was the first President of the United States to visit the Club in 1910. President Taft’s reason for stopping by was that he was lonely and wanted to visit his neighbors. All U.S. Presidents are inducted as honorary members of the Club. President Warren G. Harding qualified to become a Journalist member and voted in the 1921 Club elections due to his other full-time job as a newspaper publisher. President Harding visited the Club frequently to play cards and reveal issues within his cabinet, but always “off the record.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appearance at the Club shortly after he was elected in 1932 was the inspiration for the National Press Club luncheon series that remains its marquis program.


Significant Dates in National Press Club History:

1908 – National Press Club founded

1910 - President William H. Taft visits the Club

1916 – Woodrow Wilson becomes the first sitting U.S. President to give a formal speech at the National Press Club

1926 - President Calvin Coolidge lays the cornerstone for the National Press Building, the current home of the Club.

1932 - President Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaks at a National Press Club dinner in his honor. Soon after, the Club decides to start the Luncheon Speakers Program.

1938 – Eleanor Roosevelt became the first woman to speak at a Club luncheon.

1948 - Club votes to accept broadcast journalists as members

1955 - Club votes to accept black journalists as members

1959 - Female journalists are allowed to sit in the Ballroom to cover Nikita Khrushchev’s luncheon. Prior to 1959 women were only permitted to cover events from the balconies.

1962 - Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is the first black man to speak at a Press Club Luncheon

1971 - Club votes to accept female journalists as members

1973 - Walter Cronkite is awarded the inaugural Fourth Estate Award.

1980 - C-SPAN televises its first NPC luncheon

1982 – The first female NPC president is elected; Vivian Vahlberg of The Daily Oklahoman

1984 - Helen Thomas (United Press International) is the first woman journalist, and the first wire reporter, to receive the Fourth Estate Award.

1989 - Polish democracy leader Lech Walesa declares the end of the Cold War at a packed NPC luncheon.

1992 - H. Ross Perot announces from the National Press Club that he is running for president of the United States. The NPC library receives over 10,000 orders for the recording of his speech.

1998 - Matt Drudge speaks at NPC luncheon, breaking new ground for online journalism

2001 – The Press Club serves as the “situation room” for hundreds of journalists working in the National Press Building during 9/11 terrorist attacks on Washington, DC; the NPC provides free meals to journalists throughout the day while the building is on lockdown.

2006 - National Press Club Broadcast Operations Center opens, providing live broadcast and online streaming of public events from the National Press Club to a global audience.

2015 – A secret meeting organized by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is held in a private room at The National Press Club. It is the first meeting of the group behind the leak of the Panama Papers - more than 11.5 million financial and legal records exposing a system that enables crime, corruption and wrongdoing hidden by secretive offshore companies.