knowyourphrase.com - The Origins of Phrases and the Meanings of Sayings
Note: The origins for a phrase are very unclear, much of the time. The origins you see listed here are the plausible theories floating around for how or where an idiom came from, but may not necessarily be accurate. The quotes which have the phrase in them are pretty much the oldest written forms of the phrase I could find, but keep in mind that older recordings could exist and I am simply unaware. If you find an earlier citation than what I have, feel free to let me know!
Also, remember that just because you see a saying in an old book or newspaper, let's say from the year 1893, it does not mean the saying originates from that source or from that year. In all likelihood, if an expression is already being used in a book or newspaper, then it's probably already well established at that time and dates back even further. Nevertheless, these old quotes serve as a way to show readers how far back in history some of these popular sayings go, which is quite interesting!
Carnivals have plenty of games based around accurary, others that rely on strength, and some that require skill on the part of the player. Prizes are awarded to the winners, while the losers are left with nothing at all. The prizes typically consist of big stuffed animals and other types of toys.
Now, stuffed animals are cute and all, but what if one of the prizes you could win was a cigar? Well, that's probably not a reward you want your young kids to have. Apparently, though, there was a time in the 20th century where such prizes existed. Indeed, the origins of this phrase are believed to be rooted in the United States, where in the middle of the 20th century, cigars were given out as prizes to the winners.
Here's an example of how this phrase possibly originates from carnivals: There's a certain strength based carnival game known as high striker, and in this game the player must take a mallet and swing it as hard as they can at a target. When the target is struck, a metallic object raises up a set distance depending on the severity of the swing; if the target is hit hard enough, a bell rings, indicating that the player had won. Often times, however, the player would fall just short of ringing the bell, so the owner in charge of the game would likely tell the player: "Close, but no cigar!"
This is a plausible theory for the phrase's origins, but there doesn't seem to be a way to know for a certainty if it's accurate or not. Nevertheless, this idiom looks to go back to at least 1934, where it appears in writing in a Pennsylvania newspaper called the Chester Times:
"An unseen pedestrian loomed before their headlights, narrowly dodged the sliding
wheels. 'Close, but no cigar,' the lieutenant shouted."
Reference: newspaperarchive contained a digital copy of the newspaper with the saying in the quote above.
* Having not fired a crossbow in years, I took my first shot with it this morning at a nearby tree and missed! I was close, but I get no cigar for that attempt.
* My coach yelled 'close, Mike, but no cigar,' when I was unable to break my previous record on the 100 yard dash.