Conspiracy theories have existed throughout history, but the term “conspiracy theory” acquired its negative implications relatively recently. Just a few decades ago, using the term as a descriptor took on derogatory undertones, and labeling someone as a conspiracy theorist became a form of insult.
Surprisingly, there exists a conspiracy theory about the very origins of this label. It posits that the CIA coined the term in 1967 to discredit individuals questioning the official narrative of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and doubting Lee Harvey Oswald’s sole involvement. Two variations of this theory persist—one extreme version claims the CIA literally invented the term, while a more moderate iteration suggests the agency intentionally crafted its negative connotations for political propaganda purposes.
Recent support for the more moderate version has grown, especially after American political scientist Lance DeHaven-Smith advocated it in a book published by a respected university press. Advocates of both versions point to an official CIA document called “Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report” as evidence. Released in 1976 after a Freedom of Information Act request by The New York Times, the document expressed concern about skepticism regarding the Warren Commission’s findings on Kennedy’s assassination.
Despite proponents referencing this CIA document as a smoking gun, it fails to validate their claims. Notably, the document never introduces the term “conspiracy theory” in the singular form, using “conspiracy theories” only once in reference to allegations regarding Lee Harvey Oswald’s affiliation. Its casual usage suggests the term was already commonplace to describe alternative explanations, lacking the negative stigma it holds today.
The emergence of the conspiracy theory about the CIA’s invention of the term likely arose in reaction to the increasing negativity associated with “conspiracy theory” in the 1980s, when it acquired its prevalent negative connotations. Additionally, the theory’s popularity seems intertwined with the Kennedy assassination’s pivotal role in the history of conspiracy concepts.
Previously, conspiracy theories were widely accepted explanations from the 17th century to the 1950s, usually framed by elites and aimed at external enemies or subversive elements allegedly undermining the state. However, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, these theories transitioned from mainstream to marginal, becoming stigmatized explanations for major events. This shift led to conspiracy theories targeting societal and political elites, and the term “conspiracy theory” became pejorative, particularly evident in the Kennedy assassination investigations, which labeled alternative accounts as conspiracy theories.
Ultimately, the emergence of the conspiracy theory attributing the term’s creation to the CIA seems to reflect a retrospective attempt by conspiracy theorists, who attribute events to malevolent intentions, to explain the term’s appearance as an effort to uphold the official narrative of the Kennedy assassination.