The First President on TV

The First Televised Address Was From the World’s Fair in 1939

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opens the 1939 New York World's Fair. FPG/Getty Images

The first president on TV was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose remarks opening the 1939 World's Fair in New York were broadcast to thousands of fairgoers and several hundred television sets around the city.

The World's Fair of 1939, whose theme was "Building the World of Tomorrow," also marked the introduction of the television set to the American public and the beginning of regular broadcasts in an era of radio.

 "Now," said RCA president David Sarnoff, "we add sight to sound." 

The events of that day, April 30, 1939, made history as Roosevelt became the first sitting president to employ the medium that would become common in American politics over the decades.

U.S. presidents now seek airtime on TV when they have important news to share with the public. And candidates for the office appear in televised debates, which have become part and parcel of the election cycle since Vice President Richard M. Nixon and U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy square off in the first televised presidential debate on Sept. 26, 1960.

Roosevelt's Remarks in First Broadcast

Roosevelt's 1,420-word speech seemed to acknowledge, briefly, the momentous occasion in the use of technology, particularly to bring people and countries together. He described a United States whose eyes "are fixed on the future."

"Yes, our wagon is still hitched to a star. But it is a star of friendship, a star of progress for mankind, a star of greater happiness and less hardship, a star of international good will, and, above all, a star of peace. May the months to come carry us forward in the rays of that eternal hope. And so, my friends, the time has come for me to announce with solemnity, perhaps, but with great happiness, a fact: I hereby dedicate the New York World's Fair of 1939, and I declare it open to all mankind."

Limited Audience For Roosevelt

Few Americans actually saw the televised broadcast of Roosevelt's remarks that day. Only those at the fairgrounds and at Radio City Music Hall in New York City were able to see the broadcast because TV sets were not widely available to the public, according to the author and historian David McCullough, writing in Truman.

There were fewer than 400 television sets in use in New York City at the time of the Roosevelt broadcast. 

Related Story: How Social Media Has Changed American Politics

RCA had set up receivers on the fairgrounds. At Radio City, about eight miles from the fairgrounds, the television-maker had placed about a dozen receivers so the public could watch Roosevelt speak. Several hundred people watched the speech live, according to Patrick Novotny's book The Press in American Politics, 1787-2012.

Beginning of the TV Age

Sarnoff, the RCA president, understood the magnitude of the Roosevelt broadcast and of the introduction of the television. Speaking at the World's Fair, he said:

"It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society. It is an art which shines like a torch of hope in a troubled world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of mankind."  

The company started selling television sets the next day.

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Murse, Tom. "The First President on TV." ThoughtCo, Dec. 28, 2015, Murse, Tom. (2015, December 28). The First President on TV. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "The First President on TV." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 11, 2017).