A Brief History of Crossword Puzzles

Crossword puzzles, like so many things I love, originated in England in the 19th century, although they were first widely published in the United States. They were a derivation of the “word square,” a children’s puzzle that looks exactly how you imagine it looking. CrosswordTournament.com credits journalist Arthur Wynne of Liverpool as being the author of the first crossword puzzle. It appeared in the New York World on Sunday, December 21, 1913. Wynne’s puzzle looked similar but not identical to today’s crossword puzzles. It was diamond-shaped, and lacked the black squares we associate with typical crossword puzzles (scroll down and see if you can figure it out!).

The History of the Crossword Puzzle

During the 1920s, the United States fell in love with the crossword puzzle. As its popularity spread and newspapers across the country began to feature them, the puzzle evolved and over time took the form we are familiar with today – a large box populated by numbered white squares and empty black squares. Crossword puzzles began to appear in popular culture, as the subject of comic strips and a source of anxiety for librarians as would-be puzzle-solvers swarmed libraries to pour over dictionaries and encyclopedias in search of solutions.

Meanwhile, in England, crossword puzzles took slightly longer to catch on. Reports conflict on where and when the first British crossword puzzle was published. Crossword Tournament states that it was Pearson’s Magazine in February of 1922, while The Guardian claims it was the Sunday Express in 1925. Beyond the mere crossword puzzle, England developed the Cryptic and Super Cryptic puzzles. Their authors, such as Derrick Somerset Macnutt, adopted pen names. Macnutt, for instance, labeled himself Ximenes after a Spanish Inquisitor.

If you’re thinking of tackling one of these advanced-level puzzles, you may want to pick up a copy of Secrets of the Setters by Hugh Stephenson, the Guardian’s crossword editor. Climb into the mind of the crossword creator, and you’ll learn how to untangle the tricky mysteries of the clues. For instance, if you see the words “Greek character,” you’ll want to brush up on your knowledge of the phonetic spellings of Greek letters (pi mu nu, anyone?) or if you’re given the clue “flower” don’t just think roses or daffodils – think rivers, because those are flow-ers – get it?

Now why don’t you give the first crossword puzzle a go? Feel free to print it out, but I’m warning you – you’ll be better off with a pencil than a pen, because just because something comes first doesn’t mean it’s the easiest!



The first-ever crossword puzzle, by Arthur Wynne.


4 replies
  1. the Guru
    the Guru says:

    Great article. Always good to read a bit more of the origins of the crossword, and especially that it was a scouser that came up with the idea. For those that need a little help solving a crossword, let the Crossword Guru help out – http://crosswordsolver.guru. Here to help, sitting in my underwear 24/7.

  2. Andrew Zborowski
    Andrew Zborowski says:

    Just to add that the first crossword ever published in a British newspaper was on Sunday 2nd November, 1924 in the Sunday Express and was ‘set’ by C.W. Shepherd. He gives a personal account of events just preceding publication in his semi autobiographical book ‘Let’s Walk Down Fleet Street’ (1947, pp 34-36).


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