This term for a late-night work shift dates to around the turn of the 20th century. It is a reference to the desolation and loneliness of late-night work. The term gets it start in nautical circles with the form graveyard watch. From G. Tisdale’s Three Years Behind The Guns of 1895:
I am to stand the first lookout in the graveyard watch.1
1907 sees the move dry land and shift replaces watch. From Collier’s magazine of 26 January of that year:
From the saloons came the clink of the chips. For it was the “graveyard gamblers” shift...The small hours of the morning, when the carelessly speculative world is asleep, are theirs.
And a year later, in the Saturday Evening Post of 7 November 1908, we see:
A month later he and his fellows went on the “graveyard” shift. “Graveyard” is the interval between twelve, midnight, and eight in the morning.2
The term does not date to the 16th century as is claimed in the internet lore titled Life in the 1500s. Nor does it have anything to do with men stationed in graveyards listening for those accidentally buried alive to ring bells in their coffins to alert others that they are alive, nor is it a reference to medical students robbing graves in search of cadavers.
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 955.
2A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, edited by Mitford M. Mathews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 736.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton