"I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you"

Where did this phrase originate? The earliest place I recall hearing it was on a episode of the TV series MASH*. Did the writers of that show invent it or did it appear somewhere else before that?

Ooh, good question. That’s just the sort of trivia I like knowing! I don’t have an answer, but unless I post, I can’t make the software track the thread for me.

I could tell you, but then…you know.

I first heard it in the movie Top Gun. See the quotation in context here (about halfway down).

WAG: It’s a joke (probably) originated by people who work with classified data. There are different levels of classification. For example; “Confidential”, “Secret” and “Top Secret”. There is also “SAP/SAR” (Special Access Program/Special Access Required) that can be added. That is, you may have Top Secret clearance; but you still need special access for a particular program. Just having a Top Secret clearance doesn’t entitle you to see all TS data. Ever heard of “black” projects? They don’t exist. “Nothing to see here. Move along.”

So. The implication is that the person saying “I’d have to kill you” is involved in a “black” project so secret that if anyone not cleared for it is made aware of it, then merely debriefing the person isn’t enough. Keeping him in custody isn’t enough. The person who received the information would have to be killed to protect the program. It’s that sensitive!

So where did I get my information? I’d tell you; but then I’d have to kill you.

(BTW: I have a patch from a certain squadron. It’s all black, outlined in red, and has only text around its circumference. The middle is just black. “Si ego certiorem facem, mihi tu delendus eres” Probably not proper Latin, but it conveys the idea.)

I understand that the line is a joke. I’m just curious how far back the joke goes.

I remember the character of Col. Flagg (played by Edward Winter) using this line in a MASH* episode called “A Smattering of Intelligence” which originally aired on March 2, 1974. The episode was written by Larry Gelbart and Laurence Marks. This predates the movie Top Gun which was released in 1986.

Can anyone cite a use of this line from before 1974?

No cite, but I’d guess it probably came about when the military-industrial complex was hiring a lot of people who were being granted clearances. 1940s? Then again, there was a lot of intrigue before the war. 1930s? Could someone have said it to Mata Hari in WW1? I’d guess the 1940s.

Dunno either; I just wanted to bump this up and see if we can get an answer…