The first person selected was Charles Lindbergh, in recognition of his history-making solo trans-Atlantic flight:
Interestingly enough, Boorstin in his classic work in the field of media ecology, The Image, discusses Lindbergh as the primary example of how heroes have been transformed into celebrities, which he referred to as human pseudo-events.
Subsequent years included the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Franklin Roosevelt, and the first Woman of the Year was selected as early as 1936, and it was Wallis Simpson, the American divorcée that King Edward VIII of England fell in love with and abdicated the throne in order to marry.
The main criterion for selection was that it should be the individual who had the greatest impact on current events over the past year. As a news magazine, Time was naturally interested in the person who made the most news. But the most newsworthy individual is not the same thing as the most worthy individual, in any kind of moral or ethical sense. As Sidney Hook has pointed out, much of history is made by individuals who might be termed evil, and/or insane, and it follows that Adolph Hitler was Man of the Year in 1938, and Josef Stalin was chosen for the following year, and again in 1942.
The annual pick was not always a single individual. In 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, it was "The American Fighting-Man" that made the cover:
And in 1960, it was "U.S. Scientists":
And the first African-American selected was Martin Luther King the following year:
While choosing villains rather than heroes was a common practice, including King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1974 on account of the Arab oil embargo and consequent gasoline shortage in the US, and Deng Xioping in 1978 after taking control of Communist China by overthrowing Mao's successor, Hua Guofeng, a major turning point came in 1979 with the selection of Ayatollah Khomeini:
You can read all four comments and get the whole context over on the Fordham blog post, Fordham Faculty Weigh in on Time’s ‘Person of the Year’. I'll just share my own quote here on my little old Blog Time Passing:
Time's choice sometimes involves a conflict between their criterion of choosing the individual who had the greatest impact on world events and the potential negative response of their readership. In 1979 they chose the Ayatollah Khomeini and lost subscribers and sales. In 2001 they decided against the obvious choice, Osama bin Laden, knowing how negative the reaction would be. The editors must truly be in heaven to have before them such a clear-cut candidate who is not only a very positive figure, but an exceptionally inspirational one, not to mention someone who transcends nationality and even religious affiliation.
And I do mean that last bit, as Pope Francis has been received in very positive ways in Jewish circles as well as among many Catholics. And as for me, it's not very likely that I'll ever be pope, but there's always a chance I may make it to the "Person of the Year" another time or two. I'll keep you posted...