The White House Correspondents' Dinner: History and Significance

President Bill Clinton and the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner
President Bill Clinton, left, is roasted by comedian Jay Leno, right, at the 2000 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.  Dirck Halstead / Getty Images Contributor

The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner is an annual gala meant to celebrate the work of journalists who cover the president of the United States, his administration and the inner-workings of Washington, D.C. The event, which is often referred to as the “nerd prom,” also serves as a fundraiser for journalism scholarships and a platform for highlighting the importance of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the press freedom from government interference and censorship. It is held in Washington, D.C., by the nonprofit White House Correspondents’ Association.

The White House Correspondents' Association Dinner has also become a lightning rod for criticism since its inception in 1921, even from with its own profession. Some journalists now skip the dinner because to avoid being seen by the public as too cozy or chummy with the subjects they are expected to report on objectively - politicians, businessmen, and the media and Hollywood elite - at a time when public trust in the media was suffering. Others have said they are uncomfortable with the humorous, but sometimes harsh, roasts directed at the administration.

White House Correspondents’ Association

The White House Correspondents’ Association formed in 1914, seven years before its first dinner, to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s threat to end news conferences. Wilson tried to sever ties with the news media after alleging that his off-the-record remarks made their way into an evening newspaper. The journalists assigned to cover the Wilson administration banded together to push back against his plan. 

The association went dormant until the next president, Harding, was inaugurated. Harding, a newspaper publisher, threw a dinner for the reporters who covered his presidential campaign. The press corps returned the favor with the first-ever White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 1921.

First White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner

The first White House Correspondents' Association Dinner was held on May 7, 1921, at the Arlington Hotel in Washington, D.C. The inaugural dinner seated just 50 guests. That night, the agenda was to enjoy a meal, then choose the officers of the newly relaunched White House Correspondents’ Association.

The president at the time, Warren G. Harding, did not attend the event, but some of his top White House aides sang and made merry with the White House journalists.

Presidents That Skipped the Event

The first president to attend a White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner was Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Harding skipped the very first dinner in 1921, and several others followed suit:

  • President Richard M. Nixon, who declined to attend the 1972 and 1974 dinners and portrayed the press as an enemy of the administration.
  • President Jimmy Carter, who declined to attend the 1978 and 1980 dinners.
  • President Ronald Reagan, who did not attend the 1981 dinner because he was recovering from being shot in an assassination attempt. Reagan did, however, speak to the crowd by telephone, joking: "If I could give you just one little bit of advice: when somebody tells you to get in a car quick, do it."
  • President Donald Trump, who declined to attend the 2017 and 2018 dinners after describing the news media as the “enemy of the people.” Trump did, however, encourage members of his administration to attend the event; in 2018, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was in attendance.

White House Correspondents' Association Dinner Key Points

  • The White House Correspondents' Association Dinner is an annual gala celebrating the work of the journalists who cover the White House.
  • The first White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, held in 1921, was meant to elect officers of the organization representing journalists covering Washington and to acknowledge the newspaper background of President Warren G. Harding.
  • Most presidents attend the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, but a few presidents have skipped the event, including Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter.