White House: Trump Was Not Using 'Wiretapping' to Refer to 'Wiretapping'

'To tap a telephone or telegram wire in order to get information'

Lookups for wiretap spiked 98,000% on March 13, 2017, when, during a White House press conference, Sean Spicer said that by using the word wiretap in a series of tweets on March 4, President Trump didn’t mean “wiretapping” in a literal sense:

The President used the word “wiretap” in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities.

After Spicer's comments about the meaning of wiretap, many people turned to the dictionary for the definition (including CNN).

Wiretap means “to tap a telephone or telegram wire in order to get information”; this use of tap means “to cut in on (something, such as a telephone or radio signal) to get information.”

Although we generally associate wiretapping with the telephone, the practice predates the invention of this instrument. In the 1860s the telegraph was still the new-fangled mode of communicating across great distances, and, as important trade and military information was sent by telegraph, people began to look for ways to listen in.

Before the practice was referred to as wiretapping this surreptitious gathering of information was known as "tapping the wires" (and occasionally as "milking the wires"). An article in The New York Daily Tribune from 1861 contains the caption “Anxiety Concerning Col. Bowman—Telegraph Extension—The Enemy Tapping the Wires.”

It did not take long before “tapping the wires” became “wire-tapping,” and it also did not take long for the practice to be used on telephones wires as well and those of telegraphs.

In the current number of Chambers’ Journal there is an interesting article on the telephone. The following extract illustrates the remarks of Professor Barrett on wire-tapping in a lecture reported in The Times of Wednesday.
The Times (London, England), 11 Jan. 1878

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