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A Byte Out of History - How the FBI Got Its Name

A Byte Out of History
How the FBI Got Its Name


former FBI director Stanley FinchBet you didn’t know: this organization got its first name 97 years ago this month—and it wasn’t the FBI. And our Director then wasn’t J. Edgar Hoover, but the man shown here—Stanley Finch. Here’s the story of how FBI’s name evolved—and it’s more complicated than you might think.

First, it had no name. In 1908 when Attorney General Charles Bonaparte created the entity that would become the FBI, he didn’t name it. He simply referred to it as a “special agent force” when announcing his work to Congress in the 1908 annual report. Finch, a chief examiner in the Department of Justice, was named its first leader.

Second, it was named the Bureau of Investigation but, sometimes, called the Division of Investigation. In 1909, Attorney General Wickersham formally named Bonaparte’s “force” the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). At the time, the Bureau had less than 70 employees. Over the next several years, the Bureau was also referred to as the Division of Investigation, but this title didn’t stick. Between 1913 and 1933, the Bureau remained the BOI. In 1933 it was named the United States Bureau of Investigation.

Third, and most confusingly, the Bureau became the Division of Investigation. In the spring of 1933, newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt reorganized the Department of Justice. This reorganization grew out of the end of Prohibition: in 1919, the 18th Amendment had outlawed the sale and manufacture of alcohol and enforced by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition (BOP). In 1929, the BOP was transferred to the Justice Department from the Treasury Department. But what does this have to do with the FBI?

Well....in June 1933, President Roosevelt ordered the formation of a Division of Investigation composed of the Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Prohibition. Director Hoover—first named Director in 1924—was appointed Director of Investigation but also remained BOI Director. In the fall of 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed and the Bureau of Prohibition withered and died. Its enforcement functions were ended or dispersed so its agents were transferred or fired; a small number became FBI agents.

Finally, the FBI. By default, the Bureau of Investigation had become the Division of Investigation. This was confusing as there were several “Divisions of Investigation” in the federal government then. Director Hoover, therefore, asked that his Division be given a distinctive name. Attorney General Cummings broached the issue with President Roosevelt and Congress, and they agreed. In the 1935 Department of Justice appropriation, Congress officially recognized the Division as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI. The name became effective on March 22, 1935, when the President signed the appropriation bill. We’ve been known under this name ever since.

Resources: FBI History webpage | More History bytes