The idea for such a list started on February 1, 1998, with a debate at a symposium at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The panel participants were former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, then-Stanford Provost Dr. Condoleezza Rice, publisher Irving Kristol, and Time managing editor Walter Isaacson.
The final list was published on June 14, 1999, in a special issue titled "TIME 100: Heroes & Icons of the 20th Century".
In a separate issue on December 31, 1999, Time recognized Albert Einstein as the Person of the Century.
The list contains a total of 100 people, with 20 each in five broad categories: Leaders & Revolutionaries, Scientists & Thinkers, Builders & Titans, Artists & Entertainers, and Heroes & Icons.
Of the 100 chosen, Albert Einstein was crowned the Person of the Century, on the grounds that he was the preeminent scientist in a century dominated by science. The editors of Time believed the 20th Century "will be remembered foremost for its science and technology", and Einstein "serves as a symbol of all the scientists—such as Heisenberg, Bohr, Richard Feynman, and Stephen Hawking...who built upon his work".
The cover of the magazine featured the famous image of Einstein taken in 1947 by American portrait photographer Philippe Halsman. It was during this photo session that Einstein recounted to Halsman his despair that his special theory of relativity and his letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt had led the United States to create the atomic bomb. It was at this point of immense sadness for Einstein that Halsman took the picture.
It was debated whether Adolf Hitler, German Chancellor and Führer responsible for World War II and the Holocaust, should have been made Person of the Century for his impact on the 20th Century. The argument was based on Time's criteria that the person chosen should have the greatest impact on this century, for better or worse. However, it was decided that since Hitler's goals were defeated and the century ended on a positive note, he was not as influential as Einstein, Roosevelt, or Gandhi, though he did still make the list.
Of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of the 20th century, only the following four had the distinction of being honored again when in 2004, Time began publishing an annual list of the 100 people who continue to change the world:
Gates was considered influential in the 20th century for his role in the computer revolution, and then later recognized in the 21st century for his philanthropic influence. Pope John Paul II was recognized in part for his role in ending communism in Eastern Europe. Nelson Mandela was recognized for his role in ending apartheid in the 20th century, and as a symbol of forgiveness in the 21st. Winfrey was considered influential in the 20th for creating a more intimate confessional form of media communication, unleashing confession culture, and popularizing and revolutionizing the tabloid talk show genre pioneered by Phil Donahue, which a Yale study claimed broke 20th century taboos and allowed gays, transsexuals, and transgender people to enter the mainstream. In the 21st century she was considered influential as an inspirational role model, for the impact of her book club in making literature accessible to the masses, and for helping to elect the first African-American president.
The list has been criticized for being too U.S.-centric. Time magazine representative Bruce Handy responded to the criticism this way:
Hey--it's the American century. Clearly, the Europeans were the great innovators in terms of high modernism. But when it comes to popular culture this century has been all American. American popular culture is really the arts story of the century's second half. The music the world listens to, the movies the world watches, the junk food the world eats are all American--or largely American influenced.
The list has also been criticized for not including Elvis Presley, a decision Handy defended in the following way:
One of the most important, innovative things about rock is the whole notion of songwriters singing their own works, of the immediacy of expression. Since Elvis didn't write his own material, unlike The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Robert Johnson, who's also someone who could have been included, maybe that cut against him [Elvis]… I think the Beatles pushed the envelope a lot further. Elvis' most original recordings were his first. The Beatles started out as imitators, then continued to grow throughout their years together.
Handy was also asked to defend Time’s decision to include the fictional character Bart Simpson from The Simpsons television series among the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, and he did so as follows:
I don't see how you can look at this century and not include cartoons. They're one of our great contributions, along with jazz and film. (I know, I know. The movies were a 19th-century invention. But we 20th century folks really put them to good use.)… To some extent, too, we wanted people who also represented important 20th century trends or developments. That would help account for the Barts and Oprahs...What Bart, or really the Simpsons, have done is merge social satire with popular animation in a way that hasn't really been done before.
The list also received criticism for its inclusion of Lucky Luciano who was chosen in part because “he modernized the Mafia, shaping it into a smoothly run national crime syndicate focused on the bottom line”. New York mayor Rudy Giuliani accused Time of "romanticizing" gangsters and stated, "The idea that he civilized the Mafia is absurd. He murdered in order to get the position that he had, and then he authorized hundreds and hundreds of murders." The selection was called an “outrage” by Philip Cannistraro, a Queens College professor of Italian-American studies and Thomas Vitale, the New York State vice president of Fieri, an Italian-American charitable organization, criticized Time for "perpetuating myths" about Italian-Americans. However Time business editor Bill Saporito defended the selection by calling Luciano as "kind of an evil genius" who had a deep impact on the underground economy. "We're not out there to heap glory on these people," he explained. "We're out to say these are people who influenced our lives." Saporito further noted that "every piece of merchandise that came out of the Garment District had a little extra cost in it because of organized crime."