When I was a newspaper copyeditor back in pre-digital days, national and international news was conveyed to our newsroom on a teleprinter known as “the wire.” This was an electro-mechanical typewriter that received and rapidly printed typed messages from news wire services like United Press International (UPI) and the Associated Press (AP). Enormous rolls of yellow copy paper were inserted into the machine, so that a continuous feed of news items was emitted. One of my jobs was to be sure that the roll never ran out (it did, once).
When something really important happened, a bell would ring on the machine, and the next news item was identified either as a BULLETIN or a FLASH. A “bulletin” was an out-of-the ordinary happening, usually a disaster, such as a major plane crash or the death of a foreign government official. A “flash” was something judged to be cataclysmic, such as the assassination of a famous leader or the declaration of war. I expect that a sure-fire cure for cancer or a communication from residents of Mars would also qualify as a flash. In my year-and-a-half of tending the machine, I can recall maybe half a dozen “bulletins” and only one “flash”—which was the onset of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the third world war was widely anticipated.
Nowadays, we are beset on television and even in newspapers by a flood of what is called “breaking news.” In my day, we never used that term, since all news was “breaking,” in the sense that we were making it known to the public for the first time. Today, I gather, by “breaking news” the media mean something that is ongoing and continuing to occur as it is being reported.
Break is a versatile word, with more than 40 separate meanings listed in Webster’s New International Dictionary. Its origin is Old English brecan, “to shatter, burst, injure, violate, destroy, curtail, burst forth, spring out, subdue, or tame.” It derived ultimately from Proto-Indo-European bhreg with similar meanings. The meaning to “disclose,” as now applied to news, was first used in the 13th century.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is widely known for breaking things, including delicate crystal, promises, speed limits, and wind.
With TV news, there’s no mistaking,
It’s reported ipse dixit.
And when they say the news is breaking,
I think they ought to fix it.