On May 10, 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes had the first telephone installed in the White House’s telegraph room. The phone had been placed on a trial basis, and it is alleged that even though the president had embraced the new technology, he rarely used it to receive phone calls. The move came barely 14 months after Alexander Graham Bell had proved that his device worked.
Bell had been granted a patent on Jan 30, 1877, for an electromagnetic telephone that used iron diaphragms, permanent magnets, and a call bell. One of the reasons why the phone could hardly be used was because the phone, whose number was “1,” could only be reached –directly - from the Department of Treasury.
A year later, the first telephone exchange was established in Connecticut, and it took half a century before President Herbert Hoover installed the first telephone line in the Oval office. The phone was installed at the president’s desk.
Phones became more present by the 1940s. In the 1960’s, top personalities had buttons labeled “POTUS” on their devices. The buttons enabled them to reach the president within the shortest time.
In 1963, another line was put in place for a “red telephone.” It connected Washington to Moscow. However, the line resulted to several misunderstandings during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The misunderstanding almost resulted in a nuclear war between America and Russia. It was proposed that a clearer means of communication be installed.
From 1960’s to 1973, the three successive presidents – J.F Kennedy, L.B Johnson, and Richard Nixon – arranged to have their telephone conversations recorded. These presidents left thousands of hours of secretly recorded phone conversations. From the recordings, the public learned about JFK’s charming ability and the limits of his power to persuade. L.B Johnson managed to tape around 9,500 calls. Nixon taped the most conversations.
According to American Radio Works, Nixon left more taped recordings compared to any other president. To his disadvantage, some of the recordings ‘ended’ his political career. For example, in 1973, the Watergate investigations stumbled upon tapes and transcripts of almost 3,700 hours of Nixon’s phone recordings. Since then, sound recordings and declassified transcripts have become public in print and on the internet.
Phone recordings from the White House have given the public a hint into the personalities and political encounters of their heads of state. A number of phone recordings, including those of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Harry Truma, have been recorded and made public. Strangely, these recordings contained foul language implying that the presidents had a different personality outside the public eye. Most of the victims of these recordings seemed unaware that their conversations were being taped.
The National Archives and Records Administration has made public a number of presidential recordings since 1990. Some of the main subjects that have been talked about in the recordings include Nixon’s appointment of William Rehnquist to the country's Supreme Court; the handling of the Cuban missile crisis by President Kennedy; and Johnson's increase in the number of troops sent to Vietnam.