The well-known, long-running television program “America’s Most Wanted” (AMW) had its debut as a 30-minute show on Sunday evening, February 7, 1988. It is one of the longest-running criminal justice programs on the air in the world.
For most of its existence, it has been hosted by John Walsh and was broadcast from studios in Washington, DC, or on location from around the United States. It was later expanded to a 60-minute format and was aired on other evenings, including Saturday nights.
The FBI has publicized fugitives and others since its early days and issued its first printed “wanted notice” (an 8” by 8” lightweight cardboard notice called an Identification Order) in 1919. The paper I.O.’s issued by the FBI and other law enforcement entities used to be displayed in plain view in United States Post Offices or police stations or reproduced in newspapers and magazines.
Wanted information and notices were also broadcast on radio and then on television. AMW was the first nationwide program in prime time to make a regular program of it.
The publicity resulted in tips and captures from the get-go. It took publicity to another, higher level. Still, when cooperation with AMW was first presented by the FBI’s national public affairs and fugitive publicity managers to the FBI’s investigative case managers, there was reluctance at first to commit. Some investigators thought there was enough publicity already and a television show was not needed.
Captures obtained through AMW (over 1,000 including some of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives”) have proven otherwise. The original premise has been proven correct, and television programs featuring wanted persons and case recreations today are among the most popular types of programs on television.
As for those investigative case managers, well, they came around quickly and cooperation with AMW became routine and fashionable. By the early 2000s in fact, the public affairs managers in charge of investigative publicity had trouble with some investigations managers (and some other public affairs managers as well) wanting to join in and run their jobs.
It long has been recognized by public relations managers that being exposed to liaison with television programs and motion picture production seems to make some other employees and managers get out of their lanes and try to power grab. It happens. And is dealt with and overcome for the benefit of the overall mission.
The process of publicizing cases is tense, detailed, pressure-driven, and always focused on deadlines for AMW as well as for the FBI at its Washington, DC headquarters and in its Field Offices. The same is true for other law enforcement and investigative entities.
In January 2024, AMW returned as a regular program on the Fox Television Network (Fox Alternative Entertainment) with its original host, John Walsh. Accompanied by his son Callahan Walsh as co-host, the hour-long program on Monday evenings once again will present facts, figures, photographs, original videos, and recreations regarding crimes, fugitives, missing persons, suspects, and persons of interest. The cases will be drawn from active and cold cases from federal, state, and local law enforcement.
As always, viewers are encouraged to be on the lookout for featured individuals and send in tips or information to AMW’s 24/7 hotline or call law enforcement but take no action themselves. All submissions to AMW can be anonymous.
The administrative history of “America’s Most Wanted” is long and detailed. For further information, click HERE.
For further information about John Wash, click HERE.
ERNEST JOHN PORTER
A retired Unit Chief and Supervisory Public Affairs Manager at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, DC, Mr. Porter worked with authors, radio shows, motion pictures, television shows, documentaries, FBI History, lecturing, and special projects for the FBI for nearly 40 years. He is the developer, owner, and manager of FBIOGRAPHY.