Is “The Hartford Courant” Really America’s Oldest Newspaper?
Considering that The Hartford Courant can trace its ancestry back to 1764 — to before the American Revolutionary War — it’s not hard to see that it ranks among the oldest newspapers in the country. But is it’s claim, that it’s the oldest, really true?
The short answer is “kind of” — and the long answer is what we’ll get into here. So, join us as we look back on the Hartford Courant’s storied history and the other publications that have tried to claim the “oldest newspaper in America” title.
The Founding of The Hartford Courant
What’s currently known as The Hartford Courant was originally founded by Thomas Green on October 29, 1764. Coming from a family of printers, Green worked on the then-Connecticut Courant out of the Heart and Crown Tavern in Hartford, Connecticut, publishing the paper on a weekly basis.
Green’s first issue was just four pages long. Back then, paper itself was in short supply and pricey, so Green sold both ad space and goods; folks could come to his office to purchase clothing, spices, and hardware, for example. He also made attempts to appeal to his readership, asking them to donate old linen and rags, so that he could come up with the materials needed to produce more paper.
So, if this newspaper can trace its roots back to pre-Revolutionary War times, why is The Courant’s claim about being America’s oldest (and still-in-print) paper disputed? It boils down to a technicality; it wasn’t until September 12, 1837 that the weekly paper, the then-Connecticut Courant, started offering a daily edition, retitled The Hartford Courant. But if you count the two as the same publication — a publication that underwent a name change and a shift in printing schedule — then it is undoubtedly the longest continuously running American newspaper that’s still in print today.
The Hartford Courant Captured (and Made) American History
Green ultimately ended up selling The Courant to his assistant, Ebenezer Watson. But Watson’s time with The Courant didn’t last too long; he died of smallpox in 1777, making his widow, Hannah Bunch Watson, one of the first women to become a publisher in America. But it’s history-making strides didn’t stop there.
The Courant covered all of the current events of the day, chronicling events, such as the Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party, that eventually ushered in the Revolutionary War. In its July 15, 1776 edition, the paper published a copy of the Declaration of Independence in full. Widely circulated, The Courant upheld a trustworthy reputation, garnering readers like George Washington, who once placed an ad in the Connecticut-based newspaper for land he was leasing at his homestead, Mount Vernon. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson attempted to sue the paper for libel (and lost). In the decades that followed, Hartford resident Mark Twain stopped by the paper’s offices and contributed his own writings on occasion.
When the American Civil War divided the nation, The Courant became a leading supporter of the new Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, after the soon-to-be-president visited the Connecticut capital. When Lincoln ended up winning the presidency in 1860, the paper’s headline announced, rather boisterously, “VICTORY, VICTORY, WE’VE GOT ‘EM.”
The Hartford Courant Today
In 1979, The Hartford Courant was purchased by a Los Angeles-based media company, Times Mirror. A few decades later, Times Mirror was purchased by Tribune Company, a Chicago-based media company. This move, which came to pass in 2000, ended up being a good thing for The Courant; unlike other potential buyers, Tribune offered a wide range of media services, ranging from TV to radio to traditional publishing.
Today, The Hartford Courant offers both physical and digital editions, both of which are available via subscriptions. Even if you don’t live in the Nutmeg State or the greater New England area, you can still keep up with the paper’s stories thanks to its app. Not looking to access content behind a paywall? The Courant offers a free newsletter and several podcasts.
Although the paper focuses on local news — with a healthy dose of relevant national news topics — it’s clear by its enduring legacy that Green’s paper made a real mark on the nation. In 1949, movie legend and Americana collector Bette Davis shared a copy of the paper’s first edition with the public for National Newspaper Week (see feature photograph). She also summed up The Hartford Courant’s historical significance rather well. “As the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S.,” Davis said, “The Courant is a symbol of that first freedom which has placed America at the forefront of world journalism and whose existence assures this nation’s remaining a bastion of liberty.”
With several Pulitzers to its name, The Hartford Courant remains a trusted news source. In 1992, it won a Pulitzer for coverage of the Hubble Space Telescope’s ongoing problems, while, in 1998, it won another Pulitzer for in-depth coverage of the tragic Connect Lottery headquarters shooting. More recently, its staff were Pulitzer Prize finalists for their “complete and sensitive coverage” of the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, conveying the story in a timely manner while still holding space for the community’s grief and shock.
Other Claims About Being “America’s Oldest Newspaper“
The next runner-up for America’s oldest and continuously running newspaper is the New York Post. Hard to believe, right? The conservative tabloid was something much different when it was established by Alexander Hamilton in 1801. Much like The Hartford Courant, the Post underwent a name change; in 1934, the then-New York Evening Post it dropped the “Evening” part.
Regardless, the Post can rightly claim to be the longest continuously published daily newspaper in the United States. As we touched upon, the Post has undergone many changes over the years, mainly in regards to the political lens through which it chooses to portray the news. (Of course, it’s also known for being rather sensational; we’ll get to how that started — don’t worry.)
So, what was it like in the 1800s? Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hamilton initially used the paper as a Federalist Party mouthpiece. Eventually, William Cullen Bryant, one of the paper’s more notable editors, took the reins in 1829, using the Post to back Andrew Jackson and the Democrats. Later, however, he threw his support behind Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans once the party set out to abolish slavery. When Dorothy Schiff bought the New York Post in 1939, it published more of the tabloid-style articles associate with it today.
Over the years, several other newspapers have made the claim of being the oldest in America. One of these was The Philadelphia Inquirer; after realizing their claims were not substantiated, the paper printed a retraction. Interestingly, the New Hampshire Gazette still bills itself as the “nation’s oldest newspaper”, citing that Daniel Fowle founded it in 1756. It’s a somewhat shaky claim, however, considering that the paper has changed owners about 25 times — not to mention, it’s merged with other publications, vanished and resurfaced multiple times throughout its run. (Live free or die, right?)
That said, The Hartford Courant can certainly lay claim to being America’s oldest newspaper as well as the country’s oldest and continuously published paper. And, hey, no one’s disputing that The Courant’s motto, “Older Than the Nation”, rings true.