Cutlines or captions?

This blog has occasionally discussed the writing of cutlines, with examples both good and not so good. And that’s the word I have used most of the time: cutlines. I even have a category and tag for it.

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether “cutline” is destined for a list of antiquated terms (like these) heard in print-centric newsrooms. Is “cutline” showing its age?

Early on in my editing courses, I describe the many duties and responsibilities associated with editing the news. When I get to cutlines, I am always careful to define that term for students, many of whom have never heard it until that moment. When they understand that cutlines are those bits of text that accompany photos, the students get it: “Oh yeah, captions.”

The information that accompanies a photograph is still important. Good editors use that information to connect the image to the story. They avoid the cliche, the pun and the obvious. Good editors also use that information in a sequence to create an effective slideshow online.

So yes, the form still matters. But does the word? Is it time to search for “cutline” and replace it with “caption”?



  1. About five years ago, I was watching Jeopardy one night; the details are a bit fuzzy, but the category was “crossword clues ‘c’,” and the “answer” was something along the lines of “Words to describe a newspaper photo (7 letters).” Instinct threw out “cutline.” A man rang in with “what is a caption?” Alex called him correct, and they moved on, leaving me to regather my thoughts and count letters for a second.

    I assume the judges would have accepted “cutline,” but I wonder if that was even on Alex’s card in the first place…

  2. I love semantics debates, but there has to be a reason. Is there some defined difference between the two? If not, I think caption is more descriptive to a general audience than cutline.

  3. Long ago in the dark ages, I was taught that newspapers had cutlines and magazines had captions – though the reason for the distinction was never made clear at Syracuse. For Michael: “cut”-line comes from its being the type that was placed below a photoengraving of a picture, known as a “cut,” in the days when newspaper pages were made up by hand in metal type.

  4. Caption is sometimes use to mean a title or kicker for a photo, but most regular people would use caption instead of cutline. Maybe it’s a chance to teach young journalists to avoid jargon.

  5. I wonder what students would say to “legends,” the word we use to describe photo captions in the magazine where I work.

    I agree with Brian Cubbison’s remark about avoiding jargon. Now I just need to persuade folks here to drop the legendary jargon that’s existed for decades.

  6. Jargon has a place in the romance of the trade, though of course not in the product. And if you don’t do it for love, what else? It sure ain’t the money!

  7. I still have a real cut from the first paper (3×6, Tar Heel Sports Network) to bring in for the lecture on cutlines. But after that, I pretty much go with “caption.” Alas.

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