knowyourphrase.com - The Meanings and Origins For Several Common Idioms and Phrases
1. A rope pulling contest between two teams, each positioning themselves at opposite ends of the rope and then pulling their end to see which team is stronger.
2. A back and forth battle for power or authority.
Tug of war is a strength based game that pits two teams against each other in what is essentially a pulling contest. Before the game begins, both teams are lined up in a row, one team is positioned on the left, the other on the right, and they both grab onto a single rope. Once the game starts, everyone starts pulling on the rope with all their might; the goal is to out-muscle the opposing team.
The origins for this game arn't really clear, however, apparently there are old Egyptian paintings that depict a sort of tug of war game that was played back then, however, unlike today's game, there doesn't seem to be any rope involved. Instead, the players in the front rows hold hands and start pulling back.
Anyways, the oldest written form of the phrase that I could find appears in Ovid's Tristia from 1713, but it is obviously not referencing the popular rope pulling game people know today:
"His Nerves could all the Tug of War sustain,
My brittle Limbs submit to Toil and Pain."
However, the oldest recording of the phrase I could find that does reference the game comes from London Week News, 1875:
"Ever since the new game of the Tug of War was introduced at Woolwich last year by the 93rd
(Sutherland) Highlanders, who were then defeated by the 14th Brigade, Royal Artillery, the various
corps in garrison have been training or practising more or less for the event of this year . . . Each
team consisted of a dozen men, and the two opposing parties manned either end of a long stout
rope, the object in view being to drag their opponents over a line drawn across the centre."
* Trying to teach my children to clean up after themselves has been a constant tug of war, but after being grounded multiple times, I think they are finally starting to come around.
Note: A phrase's origins are, much of the time, completely unclear. The origins you see listed 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 the oldest written forms of the phrase I could find, but keep in mind that older recordings are probably out there somewhere. 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. In all likelihood, if an expression is already in use in a book or newspaper, then it's probably older. Nevertheless, these old quotes serve as a way to show the reader how far back in history some of these sayings go.