This phrase, meaning a situation where two bureaucratic regulations frustrate one another, comes from the 1961 novel of that name by Joseph Heller:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
Within ten years of the novel’s publication, the term was being used generally. From the March 1971 Atlantic Monthly:
In the opinion of many sociologists, the "combination of diagnosis, evaluation, treatment and classification" so highly rated by Dr. Karl Menninger is in fact the Catch-22 of modern prison life.
Heller originally titled his novel Catch-18, but at the request of his publisher changed it. Leon Uris had just published Mila-18 and the publisher did not want confusion between the two books.
(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton