His famous desk sign came from a prison
Harry Truman’s desk featured for a time (but not, as commonly believed, for his entire Presidency) a sign which on the side facing outward from his desk read, “The Buck Stops Here.” The sign is an icon of his administration and was given to him by a friend who knew that Truman would appreciate the sentiment and its relationship to the game of poker. The friend was Fred Canfil, an associate of Truman’s since the latter’s days as a Missouri judge.
Canfil saw the sign on the Warden’s desk at the Reno, Oklahoma Federal Reformatory. When Canfil asked about the sign’s origin he was told that it had been made by an inmate in the prison’s workshops. Canfil asked if a similar sign could be made for the President and the Warden relayed the request to the workshops.
By the fall of 1945, the sign was on its way to the President in the Oval Office. Truman referred to the sign frequently during his presidency, musing on the meaning of its message.
The sign contained another message on the back – the side facing Truman as he sat at his desk. There the message read “I’m from Missouri.” Truman was thus reminded on a continuing basis of his roots, and his background which led him to the desk at which he sat, as well as the rules of poker.
It should be noted that in the game of poker the buck signifies the position of dealer, a player not wanting the responsibility of dealing – and thus supervising – the game passes the buck to another player.