The 50th Anniversary of the Nixon White House Taping System

Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum closed on March 13, 2020, until further notice. The Education and Public Programs Team at the Nixon Library is pleased to remind you that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) continues to be an excellent source for entertaining and historical content! Simply follow the links below for additional information:

50 Years Ago Today

Tuesday, February 16, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of President Nixon's first recorded conversation with his secret White House taping system. The conversation took place in the Oval Office on February 16, 1971, between President Nixon and Alexander Butterfield. As Deputy Assistant to the President, Alexander Butterfield oversaw the Secret Service's installation of the taping system. View the transcript to learn more about the taping system, its purpose, and the nine people who knew the system existed.

A Sony tape recorder used to tape conversations in the White House.
(Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, 2010.1.31)

Recording History

In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to install a White House taping system by drilling holes and running wires into the Oval Office floor. This technology achieved eight hours of recordings. President Truman also used FDR's Oval Office recording system and added a hidden microphone in the desk lamp.

With the development of Dictabelt technology, President Eisenhower was able to have meetings and phone calls recorded. The Kennedy Administration continued the tradition of recording phone calls and also upgraded the taping systems with manual controls in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Bedroom. Switches were hidden in the furniture for Kennedy to select which conversations to record. President Johnson also used the manually controlled taping system for meetings and calls and installed an additional tape recorder under his bed to capture informal meetings.

When Nixon took office, he had all of the Johnson Administration recording equipment removed from the White House and relied solely on note-takers for meeting dictation. Eventually, President Nixon realized note-takers could hinder some conversations and re-installed a taping system in February 1971. Nixon's sound-activated recording system included a Sony 800 and an Uher 5000, logging 3,400 hours of discussion during the two years it was active. It wasn't until after the Nixon Administration that the public learned about the combined 5,000 hours of secretly recorded conversations from all six administrations.

The Uher 5000 was one of the tape-recording machines used in the White House. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, 2010.1.30)

The Recordings and Watergate


The President talks on the telephone, October 27, 1972. (WHPO-DO824-14)


On July 16, 1973, nearly two and a half years after the first recording, Alexander Butterfield testified to the existence of a secret taping system used to document President Nixon's private meetings and conversations. This testimony triggered the creation of The Privacy Act of 1974, requiring that agencies notify the public of their systems of records.

Alexander Butterfield's revelation of secret audio recordings also led to the discovery of the Smoking Gun Tape. Two days after the tape's discovery, President Nixon announced his resignation to avoid impeachment. Following Nixon's resignation, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974 (PRMPA). This new legislation applied only to Nixon's materials, helped reduce secrecy, and prevented the destruction of Nixon's presidential records.

After Nixon left office, the practice of systematically and secretly recording conversations in the White House was discontinued. To address issues that arose during and in the aftermath of Watergate, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Beginning with the Reagan Administration, all official Presidential and Vice Presidential records are considered public records and are managed by the National Archives and Records Administration.

For Further Research

To learn more about the recordings of the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Administrations, please explore the links below:

Explore the Nixon White House Tapes

Presidential Recordings Project

UVA/ Miller Center/The Secret White House Tapes

UVA/ Miller Center/ Presidential Recordings Digital Edition

"Play, Pause, Stop, Record: Why Presidents Taped, The Case of Richard Nixon"

Prologue Magazine/Fall 2007/Listening to Nixon 

Prologue Magazine/Summer 1988/Nixon White House Tapes

Nixon's First Week of Taping

Guide to Holdings at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library