A Short History of Crossword Puzzles

(Last Updated On: April 23, 2019)
A Short History of Crossword Puzzles

Everyone’s taken a stab at a crossword puzzle at some point in their lives. But have you ever stopped to think about where these puzzles came from in the first place? Who created crosswords, and what made them so popular? These are all great questions that will be answered in this short history of crossword puzzles.

The History of Crossword Puzzles

Word games have basically been around since words were invented, but crossword puzzles are actually a relatively modern invention. While the exact origins are often disputed, the first iteration of what we typically consider the first crossword puzzle dates back to December 21, 1913.

In 1913, a Sunday newspaper titled The New York World tasked staff writer Arthur Wynne with creating a brand new game to include in the paper. The result was a diamond-shaped, early version of the crossword puzzle, initially called a “word-cross.” Instead of the typical rectangle shape with scattered black boxes throughout, the puzzle included no black boxes and a strange numbering system. Despite this unusual format, the puzzle became a hit almost instantly.

Throughout the next several years, Wynne transformed the word-cross puzzle into the format that we all know and love today. He began altering the diamond shape to include horizontal and vertical rectangle puzzles. Wynne also eventually introduced the concept of the black squares to provide a more coherent layout.

Even the name went through some transformations, with some being intentional and others not. Soon after the name “word-cross” was introduced, the editors decided to change it to “cross-word.” Then, through a fortunate, but now historic spelling mistake, the hyphen was left out and the game was henceforth known as a “crossword.”

The Craze Spreads

It was not long before other newspapers, and even other countries, began recognizing the value of the crossword puzzle. The first crossword published in Britain came in February, 1922, in an issue of Pearson’s Magazine.

Arguably, one of the most well-known iterations of the crossword puzzle is the edition in The New York Times. However, The New York Times was actually one of the last major publications to participate in the game’s initial wave of popularity. They actually viewed the crossword puzzle as a “primitive mental exercise” that would only last a few years before dying out. It was not until February 15, 1942, that The New York Times published its first edition of the crossword puzzle.

Interestingly, the reason for their change of heart was a direct response to the devastating bombing of Pearl Harbor, which occurred only a couple of months earlier. They believed their readers might find solving puzzles a welcomed (if not necessary) distraction from the tragic world events unfolding around them.

The New York Times soon realized the true potential of the crossword puzzle and decided to start including daily crossword puzzles on November 11, 1950. Long before that, other publications were already diving head first into the opportunities presented by crossword puzzles. The first collection of crossword puzzles was published as early as 1924.

Major Crossword Milestones

Over the past few decades, crossword puzzles have transformed into the cultural phenomena that we know today. During that journey, there have been many important milestones.

In 1978, the first ever American crossword puzzle tournament was hosted in Connecticut. It was organized by none other than the unofficial crossword king, Will Shortz, the longtime editor of The New York Times crossword. But back then he was just an up-and-coming 25-year-old puzzle maker.

Other major milestones include the first crossword puzzle ever published online. This occurred on January 22, 1996. There was also the largest crossword puzzle ever published, happening in Japan on June 30, 2016. It was made up of an astonishing 66,666 clues!


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