Deadline is currently almost exclusively used to mean a time by which a task must be accomplished, but this was not always so. In the past, deadline had a variety of meanings, all related to a boundary for which there was a severe penalty for crossing.

The oldest of these uses dates to the American Civil War and refers to a line drawn around a military prison outside of which a prisoner could be shot, a literal “dead” line. From the Congressional Record of 12 January 1864:

The “dead line,” beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the sense of a physical boundary or cordon predominated, although deadlines weren’t necessarily associated with the use of lethal force. Here is a typical example from an Indiana newspaper, the Fort Wayne Gazette of 22 April 1899:

...the crowds gathered just outside the “dead line” drawn by the watchmen, beyond which only possessors of tickets were allowed to pass.

Here is one used in a more metaphorical sense, using dead line to refer to restrictions on commercial trade in a territory, from Iowa in the Dubuque Daily Herald, 28 February 1900:

...we ourselves, from our headquarters on the border, being carried away by our own constitution, have deliberately drawn a commercial dead line about the Philippine Islands for the permanent exclusion of everybaody [sic] else.

Or there is this one referring to the border between financial solvency and insolvency in the Decatur, Illinois Decatur Review of 24 October 1909, referring to an establishment that offered dancing as entertainment:

The dancing proposition seems to be hovering near the dead line. During the last year that feature has made a little money, though only a little.

By that same year, a sense of the term had developed meaning a mandatory retirement age or an age beyond which a worker would not be hired. This sense appears with some frequency, although it is not nearly as common as the sense of a physical boundary. From Wisconsin, the Stevens Point Daily Journal of 14 August 1909:

The idea of drawing a dead line at any fixed age, regardless of personal ability is questionable, but [???]ing it at the “tender age” of 15 would be insane.

This sense starts to introduce the concept of time into deadline. From an Ogden, Utah newspaper article about an elderly sculptor in The Evening Standard of 4 January 1911:

For it may be questioned by those who have the opportunity for judging his assembled product, whether the work he was to do for the twenty years of life and work that were to remain to him after the arbitrary dead line of productive activity had been passed was not the least artistic equivalent of the word of the forty years before.

Also from 1911 is this ambiguous use, from Iowa in The Correctionville News of 13 April 1911. It’s not clear whether the dead line here is a reference to the time limit or to the county border:

The News has decided that beginning with May 1, 1911, that all subscribers who get their papers outside of Woodbury county, must pay their subscription in advance.

Also from Iowa, a year and a half later, is this. It associates the term with a newspaper going to print, although the term is actually used in reference to street car schedules. From the Waterloo Evening Courier of 13 December 1912 about the celebration of a wedding of two staff members:

With arms filled with well-edited copy, enough to fill thirty forms, the operators chased out to the composing rooms of the newlyweds at an early hour where they refused to turn in “30” until the street car dead-line schedule was announced.

Finally, the modern sense appears in 1913. From Texas, the Galveston Daily News of 12 January 1913:

No dead line of time is drawn beyond which a parliament may not survive and before which a new parliament may not begin work.

And a few days later there is this from Wisconsin, indicating that the sense was widely used in newspaper circles by this date. From The Sheboygan Journal of 15 January 1913:

But midnight is the absolute “dead line” for “copy” to go into the next day’s Record.

Finally, I can’t leave the subject of deadline without including this citation from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Evening Gazette of 27 January 1913. It’s a use of the term to mean a physical boundary, but the context is unique:

“3 Inch Deadline” to be Enforced at Wellesley Ball
Wellesley, Mass., Jan. 27—The three-inch deadline is the last word in Wellesley’s terpsichorean circles [...] No girl shall allow her gentleman to hold her closer than three inches is one of the faculty’s ultimatums.

(Sources:; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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