The term hasn’t been around forever. When did it get here, where did it come from, what was used before CEO, and who was the first person with CEO as their official title?
Online Etymology Dictionary says that the term existed in 1984, so that’s a start.
Before the term CEO became rampant, people at that executive level were usually called President.
“President”, to me, sounds more like a non-executive supremo role, akin to “Chairman”. But I suppose it depends on the particular company.
I do seem to remember the term “Chief Executive” being around, before “Officer” was added and it was shortened to “CEO”. But I suspect that, as with many terms, the precise origin of “CEO” is impossible to identify. Some company starts using it, some other company’s boss likes the ring of it and decides to use it too. Eventually, some big-name company adopts it and the floodgates open.
Some intrepid historian should be able to cite the oldest use of the term in a company’s annual report. Of course this excludes privately held companies, but that’s probably okay. I did see one dictionary mention that the term became popular in the early 1980s.
But President has been used to describe a role holding executive authority since at least 1787, albeit in a governmental role. And I believe that is predated by colleges being led by a President executive, e.g. the President of Harvard. It doesn’t make any sense to assume that President in business would refer to a non-executive position just because it sounds like it to you.
Also, in every state I’ve ever done business, the department of state recognizes President as the top corporate executive officer. I’ve never heard a state require a corporation to identify a CEO as an executive officer, but they all require a President.
In corporate history “President” has almost always meant either the top executive in the company (meaning they report directly to the board of directors or the owner of the company in a privately held firm), or it has meant the number two person under a higher ranking executive, with the President typically being the one whose responsibilities involve more of the day-to-day aspects of running the business.
President as a “Chairman” figure is relatively non-mainstream.
I’ve read some biographies of robber barons from the 19th century and many/most of the examples I can think of, the top guys in those companies were titled “President.”
I think in some/many states the person holding the title “President” is recognized as the highest ranking officer of the company.
All that being said, in specific cases any/all of these rules are out the window. There are even cases where a Chairman (usually the founder who has a large ownership stake) might also have some weird title within the company itself. For example before Bill Gates retired from Microsoft he gave the CEO title to Steve Ballmer and created the position of “Chief Software Architect” for himself. While that meant Ballmer might have been technically in charge of the day-to-day, and the CEO outranks the CSA, in practice of course as Chairman of the board Ballmer was both Gates’ boss and Gates’ was his ultimate boss, with as much involvement in the day-to-day as he pleased.
Now that the term CEO is widely used the one thing that is nice about it is, it is typically the easiest way to identify who actually is the number one guy. In most cases while you might have a very strong chairman, the guy with the CEO title is the guy running things. In a lot of cases you have guys called “President & CEO” and sometimes Chairman, too. In situations in which there is a CEO and a President, the President is often in the dual role of President and COO. That’s typical in a company where the chairman is a weak-figure. The CEO in those situations tends to be the big-strategy guy and the President/COO is responsible for running daily business operations.
Interestingly in 1955 only 1 head of a Fortune 200 company was titled CEO, the rest were titled President or Chairman.
By 1975 almost all of them were headed by CEOs, this is elaborated on in this (PDF) lengthy article. The article is primarily about the concept of “corporate director interlock” (the fact that many of the executive officers of one firm will sit on the board of directors of many different firms, such that the boards of directors of most of the Fortune 500 are heavily interlocked with one another) and how that interlock lead to rapid adoption of the title CEO, which was mostly a stylistic change as the creation of the CEO job title in most cases appears to have involved no change in duties whatsoever for the man given the title.
The earliest cite in print for CEO that the Oxford English Dictionary has is 1972.