Where does the idiom “backseat driver” come from?
The phrase itself today means to give unwanted or critical advice from the sidelines, usually giving directions from the back of a car to a driver.
The literal backseat drivers from the days of yore may have had something to do with this saying. Firemen used to use long “articulated ladder trucks” with both front and back steering to help the truck turn with control.
According to this source, one of the first known appearances of the phrase occurred in 1914 in the Daily Kennebec Journal:
“When New York pitcher Vernon Gomez retires as a smokeballer he wants to become a smoke eater. Here he gets a tryout as a back-seat driver on a hook and ladder truck at St. Petersburg…”
That also has a more literal meaning, but here’s a line from 1921 explaining the meaning we’re more familiar with today:
“A back-seat driver is the pest who sits on the rear cushions of a motor car and tells the driver what to do. He issues a lot of instructions, gives a lot of advice, offers no end of criticism. And doesn’t do a bit of work.”
Harsh, but that’s the way it is.
The idiom “armchair quarterback” has a similar meaning, referring to a sports fan who shouts advice at a sports player from the sidelines or in front of the TV during a game.
Of course, those newfangled “robot cars” will someday eliminate any need for a backseat driver, as this 1950s magazine article explains: