I love it when the OED gets frisky. It definitely does with the above formulation, which the dictionary pegs as as a “hackneyed phrase.” The meaning, I probably don’t need to point out, isn’t literal but figurative: not “when the clock strikes midnight” or “when the sun goes down” but “eventually” or “when all is said and done.” The first OED citation is from 1974: “Eschatological language is useful because it is a convenient way of indicating..what at the end of the day we set most store by.”
But it was around and about long before that, principally — and fortunately, for the purposes of this blog — in Britain.
The Grammarphobia blog found it in an 1826 sermon:
Christ’s flock is but a little flock, comparatively considered. … They are but little in respect of their numbers. Indeed abstractly considered, at the end of the day, they will make an “innumerable company, which no man can number”; but, viewed in comparison of the wicked, they are but few.
“At the end of the day” is not only hackneyed, but also pompous and portentous, and thus it’s not surprising that the phrase found especially wide use in Parliament. In 1858, the Liberal Member of Commons William Gladstone said, “Coming in at the end of the day, then, Russia supported the union.” In 1896, an unidentified speaker said, “And now at the end of the day they had a Government which was brought in by a large majority for the purpose of doing justice…”
I got these quotes from the Hansard corpus, which shows the phrase becoming more and more popular in Parliament over the course of the twentieth century:
The top number indicates the times “at the end of the day” was uttered in Parliament in that decade: twelve in the 1900s, 36 in the 1910s, all the way up to 3,845 in the 1980s, at which point it began to decline.
The main reason for the decline, it’s clear to me, would have been the growing realization that it was a hackneyed phrase. Indeed, in 1986, New York Times language columnist William Safire complained about it as a “vogue term.” Fifteen years later, Safire returned to the theme. Prompted by a reader’s complaint, he looked at an interview between NBC’s Tim Russert and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, and found McAuliffe “used the phrase … seventeen times in the twelve minutes he spoke on the air: ”At the end of the day we won on the issues’; ”At the end of the day if all the votes were counted”; ‘There was no swap at the end of the day.'”
The “at the end of the day” backlash continued apace. Respondents to a 2004 survey by the Plain English Campaign chose it as the number-one most annoying cliché. (“Second place in the vote was shared by ‘at this moment in time’ and the constant use of ‘like’ as if it were a form of punctuation. ‘With all due respect’ came fourth.”) And in 2010, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter awarded “at the end of the day” its annual Trite Trophy as the most egregious cliché of the year.
In contrast to Parliament, as this Google Books Ngram Viewer chart shows, the derision has not slowed the phrase’s general momentum.
(I searched for “the end of the day” rather than “at the end of the day” because Ngram Viewer works for phrases of a maximum of five words. And hence the graph includes a not-negligible amount of false-positive noise: that is, references to the literal end of the day.)
The chart tells an interesting story in regard to Anglo-American differences: British predominance for most of the century, until (following a British slump in the ’80s) Americans caught up and, at the end of the day, surpassed their trans-Atlantic cousins.