The tradition of selecting a "Man of the Year" began in 1927, with Time editors contemplating the news makers of the year. The idea was also an attempt to remedy the editorial embarrassment earlier that year of not having aviator Charles Lindbergh on its cover following his historic trans-Atlantic flight. By the end of the year, it was decided that a cover story featuring Lindbergh as the Man of the Year would serve both purposes.
Despite the name, the title is not just granted to individuals. Pairs of people such as married couples and political opponents, classes of people, the computer ("Machine of the Year" in 1982), and "Endangered Earth" ("Planet of the Year" in 1988) have all been selected for the special year-end issue.
There have been several groups as Time Person of the Year, such as "The Peacemakers" (1993) and "The Ebola Fighters" (2014).
Since the list began, every serving President of the United States has been a Person of the Year at least once with the exceptions of Calvin Coolidge, in office at time of the first issue, Herbert Hoover, the next U.S. president, and Gerald Ford. Most were named Person of the Year either the year they were elected or while they were in office; the only one to be given the title before being elected is Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1944 as Supreme Commander of the Allied Invasion Force, eight years before his election. He subsequently received the title again in 1959, while in office. Franklin D. Roosevelt is the only person to have received the title three times, first as president-elect (1932) and later as the incumbent president (1934 and 1941).
In 1999, the title was changed to Person of the Year. Women who have been selected for recognition after the renaming include "The Whistleblowers" (Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley, and Sherron Watkins in 2002), Melinda Gates (jointly with Bill Gates and Bono, in 2005), and Angela Merkel in 2015. Prior to 1999, four women were granted the title as individuals: three as "Woman of the Year"—Wallis Simpson (1936), Queen Elizabeth II (1952), and Corazon Aquino (1986)–and one as half of the "Man and Wife of the Year", Soong Mei-ling (1937). "American Women" were recognized as a group in 1975. Other classes of people recognized comprise both men and women, such as "Hungarian Freedom Fighters" (1956), "U.S. Scientists" (1960), "The Inheritors" (1966), "The Middle Americans" (1969), "The American Soldier" (2003), "You" (2006), "The Protester" (2011) represented on the cover by a woman, and "Ebola fighters" (2014). Although the title on the magazine remained "Man of The Year" for both the 1956 "Hungarian Freedom Fighter" and the 1966 "Twenty-five and Under" editions which both featured a woman standing behind a man, and "Men of the Year" on the 1960 "U.S. Scientists" edition which exclusively featured men on its cover. It wasn't until the 1969 edition on "The Middle Americans" did the title embrace "Man and Woman of the Year".
In 1949, Winston Churchill was named "Man of the Half-Century", and the last issue of 1989 named Mikhail Gorbachev as "Man of the Decade". The December 31, 1999 issue of Time named Albert Einstein the "Person of the Century". Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi were chosen as runners-up.
Despite the magazine's frequent statements to the contrary, the designation is often regarded as an honor, and spoken of as an award or prize, simply based on many previous selections of admirable people. However, Time magazine points out that controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler (1938), Joseph Stalin (1939 and 1942), Nikita Khrushchev (1957), and Ayatollah Khomeini (1979) have also been granted the title for their impacts.
As a result of the public backlash it received from the United States for naming Khomeini as Man of the Year in 1979, Time has since shied away from using figures who are controversial in the United States for commercial reasons, fearing reductions in sales or advertising revenue.
Time's Person of the Year 2001, immediately following the September 11, 2001 attacks, was New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The stated rules of selection, the individual or group of individuals who have had the biggest effect on the year's news, made Osama bin Laden a more likely choice that year. The issue that declared Giuliani the Person of the Year included an article that mentioned Time's earlier decision to select the Ayatollah Khomeini and the 1999 rejection of Hitler as "Person of the Century". The article seemed to imply that Osama bin Laden was a stronger candidate than Giuliani, as Adolf Hitler was a stronger candidate than Albert Einstein. The selections were ultimately based on what the magazine describes as who they believed had a stronger influence on history and who represented either the year or the century the most. According to Time, Rudolph Giuliani was selected for symbolizing the American response to the September 11th attacks, and Albert Einstein selected for representing a century of scientific exploration and wonder.
Film-maker Michael Moore claims that director Mel Gibson cost him the opportunity to be Person of the Year alongside Gibson in 2004. Moore's controversial political documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 became the highest-grossing documentary of all time the same year Gibson's The Passion of the Christ became a box-office success and also caused significant controversy. Moore said in an interview "I got a call right after the '04 election from an editor from Time Magazine. He said,' Time Magazine has picked you and Mel Gibson to be Time's Person of the Year to put on the cover, Right and Left, Mel and Mike. The only thing you have to do is pose for a picture with each other. And do an interview together.' I said 'OK.' They call Mel up, he agrees. They set the date and time in LA. I'm to fly there. He's flying from Australia. Something happens when he gets home... Next thing, Mel calls up and says, 'I'm not doing it. I've thought it over and it is not the right thing to do.' So they put Bush on the cover."
Another controversial choice was the 2006 selection of "You", representing most if not all people for advancing the information age by using the Internet (via e.g. blogs, MySpace YouTube, and Wikipedia).
Time magazine also holds an online poll for the readers to vote for who they believe to be the Person of the Year. While many mistakenly believe the winner of the poll to be the Person of the Year, the title, as mentioned above, is decided by the editors of Time. In the first online poll held in 1998, wrestler and activist Mick Foley won with over 50% of the votes. Foley was removed from the poll, and the title was given to Bill Clinton and Ken Starr, which led to outrage from the fans of Foley who mistakenly believed the winner of the poll would be the winner of the title. In 2006, the poll winner by a wide margin was Hugo Chávez, with 35% of the votes. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came in second. Time again ignored those results, not mentioning them in the announcement of the Person of the Year. Time continues to annually run an online poll for the "People's Choice", but stresses the decision on who the magazine recognizes is not made by the poll, but by the magazine's editors.