The paper's erroneous headline became notorious after a jubilant Truman was photographed holding a copy of the paper during a stop at St. Louis Union Station while returning by train from his home in Independence, Missouri to Washington, D.C.The Chicago Tribune, which had once referred to Truman as a "nincompoop", was a famously Republican-leaning paper. In a retrospective article over half a century later about the newspaper's most famous and embarrassing headline, the Tribune wrote that Truman "had as low an opinion of the Tribune as it did of him."
For about a year prior to the 1948 general election, the printers who operated the linotype machines at the Chicago Tribune and other Chicago papers had been on strike, in protest of the Taft–Hartley Act. Around the same time, the Tribune had switched to a method where copy for the paper was composed on typewriters and photographed and then engraved onto the printing plates. This process required the paper to go to press several hours earlier than usual.
Presidential Election of 1948
On election night, this earlier press deadline required the first post-election issue of the Tribune to go to press before even the East coast states had reported many results from the polling places. The paper relied on its veteran Washington correspondent and political analyst Arthur Sears Henning, who had predicted the winner in four out of five presidential contests in the past 20 years. Conventional wisdom, supported by polls, was almost unanimous that a Dewey presidency was "inevitable", and that the New York governor would win the election handily. The first (one-star) edition of the Tribune therefore went to press with the banner headline "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN".
The story by Tribune correspondent Henning also reported Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate that would work with President-elect Dewey. Henning wrote that "Dewey and Warren won a sweeping victory in the presidential election yesterday. The early returns showed the Republican ticket leading Truman and Barkley pretty consistently in the western and southern states" and added that "indications were that the complete returns would disclose that Dewey won the presidency by an overwhelming majority of the electoral vote."
As returns began to indicate a close race later in the evening, Henning continued to stick to his prediction, and thousands of papers continued to roll off the presses with the banner headline predicting a Dewey victory. Even after the paper's lead story was rewritten to emphasize local races and to indicate the narrowness of Dewey's lead in the national race, the same banner headline was left on the front page. Only late in the evening, after press dispatches cast doubt upon the certainty of Dewey's victory did the Tribune change the headline to "DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES" for the later two-star edition. Some 150,000 copies of the paper had already been published with the erroneous headline before the gaffe was corrected.
Truman, as it turned out, won the electoral vote by a 303-189 majority over Dewey and Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond, though a swing of just a few thousand votes in Ohio, Illinois, and California would have produced a Dewey victory.
Instead of a Republican sweep of the White House and hold of both houses of Congress, the Democrats not only won the Presidency but also took over control of both houses of Congress.
Tribune publishers were able to laugh about the blunder years later and had planned to give Truman a plaque with a replica of the erroneous banner headline on the 25th anniversary of the 1948 election. Truman died on December 26, 1972, before the gift could be bestowed.
The Tribune was not the only paper to make the mistake. The Journal of Commerce had eight articles in its November 3 edition about what could be expected of President Dewey. The paper's five-column headline read, "Dewey Victory Seen as Mandate to Open New Era of Government-Business Harmony, Public Confidence."