“System Administrator”

“System Administrator”

A long time ago I read Cliford Stoll’s The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage. While the book itself is a thrilling retelling of Stoll’s le CarrĂ©-esq adventure tracking a hacker in the early days of the internet, the key points of the story have since escaped me. What stuck with me, and what I want to write about today, however - are the job titles you see scattered throughout the book.

From the colloquial ‘systems guy’, to the artefact that is ‘systems operator’ (sometimes sysop), to the briefly mentioned ‘system manager or administrator’. Despite all the different ways to describe the characters in the story, there’s no instance of system and administrator placed adjacent to each other. Arguably you could say that last example there could be taken as an instance of such - but ‘administrator’ itself appears alone (and in the same context multiple times).

The reason for this is almost certainly arbitrary, or an editorial/stylistic choice. The precursor to the novel uses the term ‘system administration’. Whatever the case, it’s a curious quirk that made me want to explore where the term originated. Or at least where it appeared in print for the first time.

When did ‘System Administrator’ Appear?

To save you time, I don’t really know. It’s a Hempel’s Raven situation. For the moment the earliest confirmed example I have of it is 1971, from the original “Unix Programmers Manual”. Below are the details, and some other instances of the term - including one that may have came before it:

Possibly the earliest example is the most interesting. The IBM System/360 was first made available in 1964. In the IBM System/360 Bibliography, itself published in 1986, there exists a manual entitled C28.2002-1BM System/360 Time Sharing System Command Language for Administrators and Operator. The manual has the following description:

This manual provides detailed information on the command language 
commands available to the system manager, system administrator,
system operator, and subsidiary operator. 

The system manager and system administrator share an identical
set of commands with which they control user access to the time
sharing system. The system operator has a unique set of commands
with which he controls and monitors the system configuration and
handles system requests. The subsidiary operator employs a subset
of these commands to service requests from the system. (113 pages)

That IBM appear to make a distinction between the system administrator, manager, and operator, is eminently fascinating. If this manual was published between 1964 and 1971, it would be the earliest instance of system administrator I can find. I’d very much like to find a copy of the manual - if anyone is kind enough to share it, please email or get in touch!

Assuming the manual was published some time closer to the date of the bibliography, the absolute earliest instance of the term I can find would be the 1971 print of the Unix (1) Programmers Manual, in the Miscellaneous section. Like the IBM manual, the role is mentioned in relation to user management.

The first instance to be found in the IETF’s RFCs is in RFC 882 - DOMAIN NAMES, which was published in 1983 by Paul Mockapetris while at Irvine CA.

BSD 4.3 System Manager’s Manual, itself a companion to the Progammers and Users manuals, was released the same year the book is set and makes regular use of the term.