Follow the Money


I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

Jay K asked:

A friend recently quoted the Washington Post as saying ‘Follow the money’ during the Watergate days. I thought it was just a line from the movie ‘All the President’s Men’. But is the phrase older than that?

This is usually said to have originated in William Goldman‘s screenplay for the 1976 film All the President’s Men, uttered by the source called “Deep Throat.” (It does not appear in the earlier book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.) However, the forthcoming Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, to be published by Yale University Press, quotes Henry Peterson testifying at 1974 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Earl J. Silbert to be United States Attorney: “I would say, ‘Follow the money, Earl, because that’s where it’s going to be.’ Unfortunately, we did not get it following the money because the records were either nonexistent or were destroyed.”

The DMP also quotes a 1975 book by Clive Borrell and Brian Cashinella, Crime in Britain Today: “Mr [James] Crane usually offers this piece of sound advice to all new officers joining his fraud department: ‘Always follow the money. Inevitably it will lead to an oak-paneled door and behind it will be Mr Big.’ It is a tip that has paid off in scores of cases.”

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?


This is just an etymological extension of "cui bono."


Here are three phrases with potential racial overtones that I was recently discussing with some people. Any idea on origins? I searched online, and found some leads, but there are inconsistent stories.

"cotton-picking hands" or "cotton-picking minute"
"poor white trash"
"pot calling the kettle black"

Joshua Northey

"The pot calling the kettle black" has nothing to do with racial overtones. All pots and kettles used to be wrought iron, and thus black.

It could also be "the spruce calling the pine green" or anything else where there are two objects of the same color in frequent association.


Not so much that they were wrought iron (pots & kettles were more likely to be cast iron, which when clean is sort of a silvery dark grey), but that after being used to cook over open fires for a while, they become coated with black soot.

Bill Harshaw

"the real world" (as opposed to academia?

Eric M. Jones.

This is easy to push back much further.

Congressional Record - Page 28648

I used to be a prosecutor, and the old saying was: Follow the money. ...

Fred Shapiro


I would be very happy if you could provide the pre-1974 citations that are easy to find.

Fred Shapiro

Garson O'Toole

The Congressional Record quotation on page 28648 that is mentioned above is actually dated November 12, 2003. The dates supplied by Google Books can be confusing and inaccurate as frustrated researchers discover. (Eric M. Jones alludes to the problem in a follow-up message.)

Fred, I think there is an instance in 1969 of "follow the money" that largely fits the meaning popularized by usage during the Watergate scandal. The speaker in the excerpt below is Francis Lea who is described as "head of Scotland yard's fraud squad for London's financial district." The title of the article puts the phrase between quotation marks suggesting that the editor thought many readers would find the phrase novel.

Cite: 1969 June 11, Omaha World Herald, To Find Fraud Villains, Just 'Follow the Money', Section: Sixth News: Midweek Focus on the News, [UPI newswire], Page 69 [GNB Page 66], Column 1, Omaha, Nebraska. (GBNK)

"I give this little homily to my men from time to time." the soft-spoken Lea told newsmen as he announced plans to retire Friday.

"Follow the money and you will find the villain."


Jennifer D.

I have a musical quote question that involves the origin of the ubiquitous phrase/pattern heard when someone knocks on a door - this is difficult to describe in text... it sounds like "Ba-batta-ba-ba (pause) ba-BA" Where oh where did this come from? It's plagued me for years!


Shave & a haircut ... 2 bits!

Now I'm curious as to which came first, the rhythm or the line? (Which is emulating the other?)

Eric M. Jones

Okay Fred, Yes, I was AGAIN tricked by the Google Books date without checking further. Sorry. But here is one that is unassailable, although one might argue that the meaning is just a shade shade different.

Jet - Feb 2, 1967 - Page 43
Vol. 31, No. 17
That lady of the evening who was nabbed in the Windy T*City and revealed that she and scores (perhaps hundreds) of female colleagues "follow the money" where big college and professional football games are played ....

Fred Shapiro

This is a different idiom altogether, referring to gold-digging rather than to political investigation.


That was my argument too -- pot/kettle is just a color description w/o racial overtones. The counter-argument was that the reason the dominant phrase has a black item rather than a green one is because people associate black with something lesser (which is often the implication when that phrase is used). I agree with you, but didn't want to prejudge the issue in asking my question.

Eric M. Jones

Fred, et al.:

I'll agree that "following the money" has shades of meaning. Chief among these is the strict legal definition related to estates and property.

But I don't think that "Follow the Money" needs to be POLITICAL. It refers to crime or malfeasance, political or not, being uncovered simply by seeing where the money goes to pay for it. I think this goes back hundreds of years and is probably too common to really identify as a uniquely attributable phrase.

But, hey...what do I know!

---The law of crimes

Ratanlal Ranchhoddas, India, Dhirajlal Keshavlal Thakore - 1956 - 1444 pages -
It is impossible for the prosecution to follow the money in the hands of an accused person and prove that he spent a certain specific item in any particular manner. The prosecution must stop when it is proved that the accused has ...

Eric M. Jones

Hey Fred,

I think "cocked hat" is due some further investigation...I was never happy about its claimed derivation.

Horace Walpole, George Vertue, Mary Berry - 1798 - Free Google eBook - Read
"If you should happen to suppose, as I did, that this hljlory arrived in London, do not be alarmed ; for it was at Madrid ; and a nation who has borne the inquisition cannot support a cocked hat!"

Miguel Muñoz

The phrase "Follow the money" also has a Hollywood history. When two actors spoke on screen, then walked off in different directions, the camera operators had to know which character to follow with their camera. The usual advice was "follow the money," meaning follow the actor who is getting paid the most.

William Goldman may have had this in mind when he wrote his screenplay, but he may have been inspired by a line in the original book, although the wording is closer to "trace the cash." The actual quote is something like this: "The key is the campaign cash, and it should all be traced." Bob Woodward says this to Senator Sam Irvin in the book, but it was from a phase of the story that wasn't covered in the movie, so Goldman may have decided give the line to another character, since it distills the essence of the corruption that is the film's subject. He may also have felt that it makes more sense coming from Deep Throat, who serves as the voice of wisdom in the story.