There are two ways to consider the origin of TEOTWAWKI, as an acronym and as the phrase it signifies: The End of the World as We Know It. I did a little amateur research on Google Books (advanced book search) to try to find the earliest use of the acronym and its corresponding phrase. My conclusions are by no means absolute. I’ll simply report to you what I found.
The earliest book that I could find containing the phase was an obscure scientific work called “The cosmic law of thermal repulsion: An essay suggested by the projection of a comet’s tail”, by Daniel S. Troy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1889). See the reference here. The text says: “The end of the world, as we know it, would come by an explosion or contraction, if either of these forces was suspended for an instant.” The forces mentioned are “Thermal Repulsion” and “Gravitational Attraction”.
The next year, a magazine called The Atlantic Monthly reviewed that book in its Books of the Month section, repeating the soon-to-be iconic phrase, along with the comment: “How well the Crack of Doom is named!”
Afterward, in the early 1900′s, the number of sources that picked up the phrase and used it in various contexts was multiplied. many sources began to apply the expression to the Christian Apocalypse. Subsequently, the expression gained in popularity. End of the world talk as the year 2000 approached only increased the use of the phrase.
In 1987, the rock band R.E.M. released the song: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)“. At that point, the expression became very widespread. But the acronym TEOTWAWKI was still, as far as I can tell, unknown. It wasn’t until the rapid growth of the internet in the mid to late 1990′s that the acronym shows up.
The problem, though, is that much of the early days of the internet went unrecorded. TEOTWAWKI might have been used in the late 1980′s or early 1990′s. But the earliest printed references that I can find are two:
Orange Coast magazine, 1999, mentions the term in discussing the (anticlimactic) anticipated computer disaster Y2K, stated: “Our whole system could crash, and if you take a minute to check out the Net, you’ll find a lot of people predicting that this is in fact what will happen — The End Of The World As We Know It (or TEOTWAWKI in Net shorthand.).” So that source attributes the acronym to the internet.
The only other hard and fast source from the 1990′s that I could find is an episode of the TV show “Millennium”; the episode is titled “TEOTWAWKI”. It aired in October of 1998. But for a TV show to have such a title implies that the term was at least in modest usage prior to that time. So I would date the origin of TEOTWAWKI to the early to mid-1990′s as an internet expression.
Of course, today the term TEOTWAWKI finds widespread use on websites and blogs dedicated to prepping and survival topics. The meaning of the term in that context is a disaster with long term effects that will substantially change society and the way that we live our lives — not the end of the world, but only the end of the world “as we know it”. So the meaning went from an obscure scientific aside on what would happen if gravity (or other forces of nature) ceased to exist, to a term referring to the apocalypse, to a more general meaning indicating any disaster, natural or man-made, that would wreak havoc on the fabric of modern society.