What is the White House Correspondents’ Association?

Odds are, you’ve seen reporters peppering White House officials with questions at televised briefings or talking with the president aboard Air Force One when they accompany him on his travels. Several media outlets recently hired additional reporters to cover Vice President Harris, citing her history-making turn as the first woman and person of Jamaican and Indian descent in that role.

Most of these reporters belong to the White House Correspondents’ Association. For more than 100 years, the association has helped to create transparency at the highest levels of American government by encouraging its journalists to thoroughly report on the president and vice president.

The U.S. Constitution, through the First Amendment, guarantees freedom of the press, a cornerstone of American democracy. Reporting on the White House is one way members of the press exercise that freedom.

It is important that the association — and its 400 members gathering news for television, print, radio and the internet — works independently of the White House. Association members work for outlets based in the United States and every continent around the world, excluding Antarctica.

Steven Thomma, the association’s executive director and a past president, says the geographic diversity of journalists who take part in daily briefings at the White House represents “a great example of the power of the freedom of the press [in] America.”

Meet the press

The press corps regularly covering the White House created the association in 1914 to stop President Woodrow Wilson from terminating his news briefings, according to the association’s website. (Wilson had threatened to end them because some newspapers published comments he considered private.)

The first thing the nascent organization did was ensure only accredited reporters attended news briefings — before this, stock market tipsters frequented them to try to make financial gains based on the president’s words, Thomma said.

People holding cameras surrounding President Kennedy's desk (Robert Knudsen/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA)
President John F. Kennedy briefs the press from the Oval Office during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. (Robert Knudsen/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA)

Since its creation, the association has worked to broaden access and to support reporting. It backs its members in court if they need support. It also determines who sits where in the White House briefing room while staffing a rotating “press pool” of journalists who follow the president. The pool is made up of 13 to 20 journalists who cover events and file reports for use by the rest of the journalists, Thomma said. “It exists because we cannot fit the entire press corps of several hundred people inside Air Force One, and we cannot fit the entire press corps in the briefing room,” he said.

A seat at the table

You don’t have to join the association to cover the White House, but most journalists working the beat do, Thomma said.

And Thomma readily admits that during earlier times, membership was not always managed fairly. The association started out all male and all white. The first female member was likely Cora Rigby of the Christian Science Monitor, who joined in the 1920s, according to research the association is compiling on its history.

President Truman speaking to reporters while they take notes (Abbie Rowe/National Park Service via Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA)
President Harry S. Truman speaks to reporters in the Oval Office in August 1945. (Abbie Rowe/National Park Service via Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA)

Reporter Harry S. McAlpin Jr. of the National Negro Publishers Association broke the press corps’ color line in 1944 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited him to cover his Oval Office news conference, despite the association’s refusal to admit McAlpin. In 2014, the association named a college scholarship after McAlpin and granted him a posthumous membership.

“It was a great, great remembrance and an acknowledgement of our own deep, deep flaw,” Thomma said.

Louis Lautier succeeded McAlpin as the National Negro Publishers Association’s Washington correspondent and became the White House Correspondents’ Association’s first Black member in 1951, according to the association’s research.

To qualify for regular membership today, journalists must cover the White House as their main beat and work for a news-gathering organization that regularly reports on it. The applicant or news outlet must also be credentialed by the congressional Standing Committee of Correspondents. Its five committee members are journalists (elected by other journalists to two-year terms) who credential reporters to cover Congress.

Training future reporters

Since 1991, the group has helped up-and-coming journalists by awarding scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students studying journalism at American universities.

Three of its biggest scholarships go to students at Howard University, a historically Black university. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association select some scholarship recipients.

Scholarships help students learn about reporting on politics, government or foreign policy. American University student Riddhi Setty writes stories about people who historically have been excluded. She recently won a scholarship that her school and the association are funding to help her focus on investigative journalism.

The award not only helps cover her tuition, but also pairs her with a mentor covering the White House. “There is always more to learn,” Setty said. “And I’m very excited to learn more about something that I am very passionate about.”