TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The First Social Security Number

Who was reported to have been issued the first Social Security Number (SSN)?

By PS | August 14, 2012

According to the Social Security Administration, since the Social Security Board did not have a network of field offices in late 1936, it contracted with the U.S. Postal Service to distribute and assign the first batch of Social Security numbers through its 45,000 local post offices around the country. Of these 45,000 post offices, 1,074 were also designated as "typing centers" where the cards themselves were prepared.   

The procedure for issuing the first SSNs was that the SS-4 application forms were to be distributed by the post offices to employers beginning Monday, November 16, 1936. These forms asked the employers to indicate how many employees they had at their place of business. Using the data from the SS-4 forms, the post offices then supplied an SS-5 form for each employee and these forms (on which the assignment of an SSN was based) were to be distributed by the post offices.  

The completed SS-5 forms were returned to the post office where an SSN would be assigned and a card typed with the name and SSN. So the first card was issued, sometime in mid-November, 1936, somewhere in one of 1,074 post offices to someone whose identity and SSN are unknown.   

However, once the SSN records were received in Baltimore they were grouped in blocks of 1,000 and the master records were created. On December 1, 1936, the first block of 1,000 records were assembled and were ready to start their way through the nine-step process that would result in the creation of a permanent master record and the establishment of an earnings record for the individual. When this first stack was ready, Joe Fay, head of the Division of Accounting Operations in the Candler Building, walked over to the stack, pulled off the top record, and declared it to be the official first Social Security record.   

The Social Security Administration noted this was the first point in the process where there was enough control to designate an official first card; it would have been impossible to try and identify the first card typed in one of the 1,074 typing centers around the country. This particular record, (055-09-0001) belonged to John D. Sweeney, Jr., age 23, of New Rochelle, New York.   

The next day, newspapers around the country announced that Sweeney had been issued the first SSN. It would be more accurate to say that the first Social Security record was established for John David Sweeney, but since master records were invisible to the public and the Social Security card was a very visible token of the program, the newspapers overlooked the nuance.