Earliest Recording of JFK Uncovered: Hear Him Speak as a 20-Year-Old

John-F-Kennedy
John F. Kennedy graduating from Harvard University in June 1940. The earliest known recording of the 35th president has been released by Harvard, from when JFK was only 20 years old. John F. Kennedy Library & Museum

What did John F. Kennedy sound like as a 20-year-old? Well, now we know. Archivists from Harvard University have just released a new audio file of the future president delivering a speech in 1937, which they say is the oldest ever uncovered.

In the clip, which is one minute and 28 seconds, you can hear Kennedy speaking about Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, as part of an assignment during the public speaking course “English F.” Kennedy speaks about how Black had just been confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, before revelations came out that the judge had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Black “secretly took an oath” of office before taking off to Europe, Kennedy explains, questioning why Black would act in such a manner. (The controversy would largely blow over, and Black would serve in the court until his death in 1971.)

“As far as we know, this is the earliest known recording of his voice in a research collection,” archivist Megan Sniffin-Marinoff told the Harvard Gazette.

The recording is unmistakably JFK. His distinctive manner of speech is there, as is his peculiar, famous accent. Though there are a few pauses and “uhs,” he sounds self-assured, and the topic matter is telling. David Ackerman, the head of media preservation services at the Harvard Library, told the Gazette that most other students in the class chose mundane topics “such as book collecting, sourdough, and how to find a wife.”

It’s pretty interesting that his first speech ever recorded would concern matters of secrecy, and mention a secret society like the KKK. In one of his more memorable speeches, to the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27, 1961, he famously said “the very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.” (Of course, this was a speech about resisting communism, and shortly thereafter he also exhorted “every newsman in the nation to reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country's peril.”)

Prior to this, the oldest known recording of Kennedy is a 1940 radio interview housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, making this recording three years older.