"Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel” is a popular saying in politics that means don’t argue with the press (especially newspapers), who can publicize an opinion like no one else can. The phrase is somewhat dated—newspapers are not as important as they once were, and online newspapers don’t use ink.
The phrase is cited in print from 1964, where it was credited to former Indiana Congressman Charles Bruce Brownson (1914-1988). The earliest recorded uses of the phrase come from several Indiana politicians.
Wikipedia: Charles B. Brownson
Charles Bruce Brownson (February 5, 1914 - August 4, 1988) was a U.S. Representative from Indiana.
Brownson was elected as a Republican to the Eighty-second and to the three succeeding Congresses (January 3, 1951-January 3, 1959). He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1958 to the Eighty-sixth Congress.
The Quote Verifier:
Who Said What, Where, and When
By Ralph Keyes
New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press
Never pick a FIGHT with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.”
Sometimes including “and newsprint by the ton,” this piece of advice usually gets passed around without an attribution ("As they say,” “In the old adage,” etc.). (...) William Greener, a press aide to President Gerald Ford and other political and corporate figures in the 1970s-1980s, called the admonition “Greener’s Law.” According to Barbara P. Semonche, director of the Park Library at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications, no one has ever determined the origins of this commonly cited quotation. “Ink by the barrel” was a phrase often used in the late nineteenth century.
Verdict: Author undetermined.
By Irving Leibowitz
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Former Congressman Charles Brownson, Indianapolis Republican, used to say, “I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
By William L. Rivers
Boston, MA: Beacon Press
Indiana Congressman said resignedly of Pulliam, “I never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
20 November 1968, Anderson (IN) Daily Bulletin, “Tributes Are Paid Branigin,” pg. 27:
The governor for the most part replied in verse. To Pulliam, who was master of ceremonies, Branigin said:
“I shall not argue in this carol
“With one who buys ink by the barrel.”
(Indiana Governor Roger Douglas Branigin to Eugene C. Pulliam, publisher of the Indianapolis News and Star—ed.)
12 April 1972, Vidette-Messenger (Valparaiso, IN), pg. 4, col. 5:
Welsh observed: “My only comment is never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrel.”
(Former Indiana governor Matthew Welsh—ed.)
Google News Archive
6 November 1973, The Bulletin (Bend, OR), “Calling the bluff,” pg. 4, col. 1:
In the old print monopoly days there was a saying among politicians that you should avaoid arguments with men who bought their ink by the barrel. Politicians now might be admonished to avoid arguments with men who can talk to a hundred million Americans every night at the dinner hour.
20 November 1975, Anderson (IN) Herald, “Branigin: A Hoosier Original,” pg. 19, cols. 1-6:
INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—“If I have one weakness, it’s being myself,” Roger Douglas Branigin once said. “I never changed a damn bit whether I was in the governor’s office or not.”
Branigin, who died Wednesday at age 73, was a Hoosier original.
But he never engaged in public debate or editorial views of the news media. “If you want to get in an argument,” he said, “never do it with the man who buys his ink by the barrel or his air by the volume.”
22 June 1977, Elyria (OH) Chronicle Telegram, “‘Perks’ for Newsmen Not Justified Either” by Aldo Beckman (Chicago Tribune), pg. G8, col. 3:
“Of course, it’s wrong, because those perquisites have grown like Topsy, partly because of a hesitation by elected officials to say ‘no’ to anyone who buys their ink by the barrel.”
Google News Archive
24 August 1978, St. Petersburg (FL) Times, “A U.S. senator defends tax cut,” pg. 25A, col. 5:
Editor: I have a standing rule never to argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel, but your editorial, “The saving word,” which appeared July 8, compels me to take exception.
William V. Roth, Jr.
United States Senate
28 September 1978, Wall Street Journal, “Politics and People: Final Rules” by Alan L. Otten, pg. 22, col. 3:
William Greener, press aide to former-President Ford and several Cabinet officers, would cite Bill Greener’s Law in his frequent efforts to persuade high-ranking officials not to respond publicly to hostile news stories or editorials; the law warns, “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
28 January 1979, Salina (KS) Journal, “Carlin snub irks Statehouse press” by Cindy Schwartz, pg. 4, col. 1:
TOPEKA (HNS)—Never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrel is a phrase used by many a public official when referring to those in the news business.
24 July 1979, Elyria (OH) Chronicle Telegram, “Carter team behind in last of the eighth” by Jon Margolis (Chicago Tribune), pg. B16, col. 5:
But good politicians follow an old rule: “Never pick a fight with the people who buy their paper by the carload. You lose every time.”
New York (NY) Times
THE CAMPAIGNS FOR CONGRESS
By STEVEN A. HOLMES
Published: Tuesday, October 1, 1996
Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel, or so it has been said,
By Norman R. Augustine
Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Presidential Press Secretary Jim Brady is said to have advised, “Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.”
July 9, 2009, 7:05PM EST
Dole Sues Bananas! Filmmaker
The fruit company turns up the heat in its dispute over claims that Nicaraguan workers were made sterile by a pesticide
By Michael Orey
It used to be that corporations were wary of taking on the media in lawsuits. “The old school of thought,” says crisis communications expert Eric Dezenhall, was that “you should never pick a fight with anybody who buys ink by the barrel"—the idea being that even big companies could be outgunned on the battlefield of publicity. But, he says, that calculus has changed, and companies are now more willing to fight back.
New York City • Government/Law/Politics/Military • (3) Comments • Thursday, July 16, 2009 • Permalink
I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.
Thanks - that was my writer’s “pump up” for the day.
"Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” I am quite surprised to see that the phrase is attributed to a number of American personalities. When I was in college, I was taught that the famous phrase was from the distinguished English writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Recently, I tried to find the phrase in his works, but did not succeed. Can someone tell me with certainty if I am right or wrong? The reason is that I am about to use the phrase in one of my own books. Many thanks. Maurice Henrie