Conspiracy theories have a long history, but the actual term “conspiracy theory” emerged much more recently. It was only a few decades ago that the term took on the derogatory connotations it has today, where to call someone a conspiracy theorist functions as an insult.
So it may come as no surprise that there is even a conspiracy theory about the origins of the label. This conspiracy theory claims that the CIA invented the term in 1967 to disqualify those who questioned the official version of John F Kennedy’s assassination and doubted that his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had acted alone.
There are even two versions of this conspiracy theory. The more extreme version claims that the CIA literally invented the term in the sense that the words “conspiracy” and “theory” had never been used before in combination. A more moderate version acknowledges that the term existed before, but claims that the CIA intentionally created its negative connotations and so turned the label into a tool of political propaganda.
The more moderate version has been particularly popular in recent years for two reasons. First, it is very easy to disprove the more extreme claim that the CIA actually invented the term. As a search on Google Books quickly reveals, the term “conspiracy theory” emerged around 1870 and began to be more frequently used during the 1950s. Even die-hard conspiracy theorists have a hard time trying to ignore this. Second, the more moderate version received a big boost in popularity a few years ago when American political scientist Lance DeHaven-Smith propagated it in a book published by a renowned university press.