The Associated Press has been breaking news since it was created in 1846. That year, five New York City newspapers got together to fund a pony express route through Alabama in order to bring news of the Mexican War north more quickly than the U.S. Post Office could deliver it. In the decades since, AP has been first to tell the world of many of history's most important moments, from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the fall of the shah of Iran and the death of Pope John Paul.
More than 30 AP journalists have given their lives in this pursuit of the news. "I go with Custer and will be at the death," AP reporter Mark Kellogg wrote before Custer's final stand against the Sioux. And so he was.
One reason for AP's longevity has been its ability to adapt quickly to new technologies. When it was founded, words were the only medium of communication. The first private sector organization in the U.S. to operate on a national scale, AP delivered news by pigeon, pony express, railroad, steamship, telegraph and teletype in the early years. In 1935, AP began sending photographs by wire. A radio network was formed in 1973, and an international video division was added in 1994. In 2005, a digital database was created to hold all AP content, which has allowed the agency to deliver news instantly and in every format to the ever expanding online world. Today, AP news moves in digital bits that travel nearly as quickly as the news itself unfolds, to every platform available, from newspaper to tablets. AP's video division is now the world's leading video news agency.
Often called the "Marine Corps of journalism"â€”always first in and last outâ€”AP reports history in urgent installments, always on deadline. AP staff in 300 locations in more than 100 countries deliver breaking news that is seen or read by half the worldâ€™s population on any given day. It remains a not-for-profit cooperative, owned by 1,500 U.S. newspapers, which are both its customers and its members. A Board of Directors comprised of publishers, editors, and broadcast and radio executives oversee the cooperative.
In 2003, AP moved from its long-time headquarters at Rockefeller Center to its current global headquarters, on the West Side of Manhattan, where it could integrate its all-format news department in one space. In the process of that move, AP established a Corporate Archives, which has since been carefully documenting the story of AP from its beginnings. In old AP periodicals we discovered the story of correspondent Frank Martin's 13-day hike from Ledo, China in 1944 to link up with Gen. "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell's forces in Burma. The road was strewn with the skeletons of 30,000 refugees, Martin noted. At one point he encountered a tribe of Naga headhunters singing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm, E-I-E-I-O." The tribe had been taught the song by a missionary, after which they cut off his head.
On occasion, the findings have been flattering. During the Civil Rights era, newspaper editors concerned that AP reporting of racial tensions might upset their readers pressured AP to identify blacks as "Negroes." Other historical findings reinforced AP's remarkable role as eyewitness to history, such as when AP correspondent Joseph I. Gilbert borrowed President Lincoln's handwritten text of the Gettysburg Address so he could copy it. Gilbert's account of Lincoln's speech stands as the most accurate version of what Lincoln said that day.
Even in this digital age, AP remains the definitive source for reliable news across the globe. While the company has gone from distributing news via pony express to instantaneous digital transmission, its news values and mission remain the same.
"The people of the AP are part of the fabric of freedom," said former board chairman Frank Batten. "They are the honest messengers, mostly anonymous, far from the limelight, often at risk and always committed to getting out the news as thoroughly and as accurately as possible."