• Who coined or originated the term or phrase "Surfing the Internet"?
  • What is the origin of "Surfing the Internet"?
  • Who invented surfing the Internet?

First Use in a Published Article (1992)

To the best of my knowledge I am credited with the first published use of the phrase. This is due to an article titled "Surfing the Internet," published in the June 1992 monthly magazine, Wilson Library Bulletin. (Wilson Library Bulletin, v66 n10 p38-42, Jun 1992 or ERIC document EJ447456) I think of this as version 1.0. WLB has now ceased publication, but it was a popular monthly professional magazine for librarians, and was published by the H.W. Wilson company. 

Subsequently I updated and expanded the article and released the electronic file for FTP download (through NYSERNet.org) December 3, 1992 as version 2.0 (closely followed by 2.01 and Dec. 15's version 2.0.2). It quickly spread around the world after that. We put up a version 2.0.3 update in May, 1993.

Other Early Use in Printed Publications (1993-1995)
Because I am a librarian, I did extensive searches for early uses of the terms "Internet" and "surfing (or surf or surfer)" in print media. In 2001 I searched DIALOG@CARL newspaper archives, many of which go back into the early 80s. Here's what I've found.

  • My Wilson Library Bulletin article was first, June 1992.
    Then there's a gap of a year.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle first used it on June 1, 1993
  • This article also states that worldwide, "The number of people hooked to the Internet has grown exponentially -- from about 2,000 in 1981 to about 15 million today."
  • USA Today, Aug. 17, 1993
  • InfoWorld Sept. 20, 1993
  • PC Week Nov. 15, 1993
  • Boston Globe, Nov. 23, 1993 "Internet surfer"
  • Halifax Daily News, Dec. 1, 1993
  • New York Times, Dec. 8, 1993 "to surf the Internet"
  • Washington Post, Dec. 18, 1993 "to surf the Internet"
  • Seattle Times, Dec. 21, 1993
  • Washington Post, Jan. 16, 1994
  • Computerworld, Feb. 14, 1994
  • Times of London, April 24, 1994 "net-surfing"
  • San Jose Mercury News, April 29, 1994 "surfed the Internet"
  • St. Petersburg Times, May 1, 1994
  • San Jose Mercury News, May 22, 1994
  • Charlotte Observer, June 30, 1994
  • Internet World July-August 1994
  • Atlanta Constitution, July 24, 1994
  • San Francisco Examiner, July 24, 1994
  • St Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 17, 1994 "Internet surfer"
  • Network World Aug. 29, 1994
  • Roanoke Times, Oct. 8, 1994
  • Business Times (Asia- Pacific), Oct. 10, 1994
  • Newsday and New York Newsday, Oct. 19, 1994
  • Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 21, 1994
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch Nov. 6, 1994
  • Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 7, 1994
  • Madison Capital Times, Nov. 15, 1994
  • Los Angeles Times, Dec. 18, 1994
  • Byte, Jan. 1995
  • The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 17, 1995
  • Detroit Free Press, Feb. 4, 1995
  • Miami Herald, Feb. 5, 1995

Early USENET Surfing
Although my article was independently conceived and written in the early months of 1992, and submitted in mid-March, others were thinking along the same metaphorical lines. A handful of earlier uses have turned up in Usenet archives, recently made available by the search engine Google. (http://groups.google.com /)

Mark McCahill, father of the Internet Gopher protocol, can be credited with first known Usenet usage of the exact phrase, "surfing the internet." [Ed. Note: For the record, I didn't have Usenet access at the time I wrote my article back in 1992, so I never knew of Mark's use of it until 12-12-01, when I read about Google's new expanded Usenet archive.]
Mark's post:
" 24 Feb 1992 by "Mark P. McCahill"
Newsgroups: alt.gopherView:
.... There is a lot to be said for...surfing the internet with gopher from anywhere that you can find a phone jack....."

On Dec. 12, 2001 I informed Mark of his "first post" rights. He said,
"I can tell you why I used the phrase. One of my favorite sports is windsurfing, so 'surfing' is never far from my mind... that and extending the 'channel surfing' metaphor to the internet because we thought that browsing was an important way of finding information. If you have ever seen my garage (I think there are 8 or 10 sailboards there) or my office (1 board) know why I would say something about surfing the internet."

A few days earlier than McCahill's original post, on February 18, 1992, Charles Bailey posted to bit.listserv.pacs-l and wrote about the "virtual library." He said, "Doing it right seems to imply building a library-wide network of microcomputer workstations that is linked to external networks (e.g., the campus LAN and Internet). It also implies providing local servers (e.g., networked CD-ROM databases, OPAC, and locally mounted citation, full-text, and multimedia databases) and 'seamless' connectivity to remote servers (e.g., remote OPACs, CARL UnCover2, and OCLC FirstSearch). Creating an easy-to-use interface to these diverse heterogeneous resources will not be a trivial task. Even if we don't try to fully support users as they 'surf' the networks, end-user support costs will increase as the library provides access to a growing number of information servers."

There's also use of the term "going net-surfing" which turns up in a June 6, 1991 comp.admin.policy post by Brendan Kehoe.
"...Here's a question: how do other people deal with users that they *think*
are doing no-nos around the net? One of our users had the habit of
occasionally going net-surfing and doing the hit-and-run type of
attempts (trying 'guest' usually)..."

In January 1992, Kehoe released Zen and the Art of the Internet (https://www.cs.indiana.edu/docproject/zen/zen-1.0_toc.html), arguably the first Internet guide aimed at non-techie end users. It does not talk about "surfing the net" at all. Kehoe used the words "explore" and "search" and "use" when referring to what one did on the Internet of that era.

I have not found earlier usage of surfing (surf*) and the Internet (*net) on the Usenet archive at Google, but it's possible that there are some in there that have so far escaped my extensive searches.

Surfing Information
Long before these early USENET posts, people were speaking of surfing information, and in fact I reference my venerable Apple Library Users' Group mousepad, as the item that gave me the idea for my own article. I wrote about how I came up with "Surfing," called the Birth of a Metaphor, also at this site.

Steve Cisler, who worked at the Apple corporate library in Cupertino, California, writes, "Bob Jacobson talked about surfing information, and that predated 1989. At least, I got the idea from him and then did the 'information surfer' mousepad, t-shirt, and [it was also my] job title."

Paul Saffo writes and says, "I heard the phrase 'internet surfing' here in the [Silicon] valley as early as the late 80s shortly after I wrote my July 1988 Personal Computing column which mentioned 'information surfing.' I can't recall when I first saw 'internet surfing' in print outside of email and the hacker community, but I definitely ran across the term way before 1990."

Saffo continues, "In addition, as I mentioned, 'information surfing' was being heard around the valley for over two years before I mentioned it in my column in July 1988 Personal Computing. I used it as a title for numerous speeches in the same period (including at Apple) and mentioned it frequently until the term became so commonplace that I dropped it from my vocabulary in the early 90s."

But What About Captain Internet and CERF BOY?
CERFnet published a very hip and funny comic book series in the early 1990s. Number 1 was dated October 1991. It is called “CERFnet Presents The Adventures of Captain Internet and CERF BOY; The LAN That Time Forgot” and it is available online here (https://archive.org/details/CaptainInternetAndCERFBoyNumber1October1991).

The Cover shows the protagonists on a surfboard and the story opens on a beach, with CERFBoy on a surfboard, but the story is mostly about insde LANnetworking jokes and puns and there’s no talk of "surfing the Internet."

Number 2 in the series (dated Oct. 1992) is called CERFnet Presents the Adventures of Captain Internet and CERF BOY “Raiders of the Lost Arp.” I don’t see this one online anywhere, although a friend recently sent me a scan of her copy. Once again, we find our heroes living on the beach, and the text is full of groaner networking jokes but there’s no mention of “surfing the Internet.”

There is also Number 3, “One if by LAN, Two if by C” dated May 1994 and that one can be viewed here: (https://archive.org/details/CaptainInternetAndCERFBoyNumber3May1994).

While it is true that the superheroes ride a surfboard, and it could be argued that surfing the network was implied, there’s no use of the phrase “surfing the Internet” in any of them.

Parting Thoughts
Before we surfed the net, folks mined it, navigated it, explored it, used it, or cruised it. So who really came up with Surfing the Internet?

I suppose I can take some credit for popularizing it, because it's clear that "Surfing the Internet" really began to take over as the term of choice after I released my article to the Internet in December, 1992 for free FTP download. Immediately we had downloads from all over the world—500 in the first 12 hours, as I recall--which was a big deal in those early days.

My article was short enough to be translated into many languages, and it was meant to show people the fun and utility of using the Internet. Over the years I have kept many pieces of correspondence from people who found that early document useful, and took the time to write and thank me. I am happy that my article played a part in Internet history.