A Time Traveler
may not want to confuse random passers-by by asking them What Year Is This?
. So they'll find a newspaper or other conveniently dated artifact instead. A standard joke has one character using the architecture, the fashions, the technology and the incidents on TV to come up with a guess at the year, only for someone else to correct them after reading the paper.
Not to be confused with personal ads, or with Authentication by Newspaper
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Anime and Manga
- Cowboy Bebop does a somewhat serious take on the joke version of this: In order to demonstrate the extent of her remaining memory after waking from a cold-sleep, Faye identifies a series of slightly futuristic-looking objects on the table next to her. Her lawyer then makes a point of showing her just how far into the future she's been thrown by demonstrating that the items are not a TV, a water pitcher, and a phone but rather a miniature washing machine, a device for washing faces, and a thermometer.
- A more short term version appears in Mahou Sensei Negima!. Chao sends Negi and his friends a week into the future to the point that she has already won the battle. They realize something is up (the massive School Festival has disappeared), but they don't figure out what happened until Yue sees the date on a newspaper. Chisame finds out separately over the internet.
- Played with in the Blake and Mortimer book The Time Trap: Mortimer finds himself alone in a post apocalyptic future. He finds an inscription in some ruins reading "2015-2050" and thus believes himself to be in the mid 21st century...until he meets someone else and mentions the date only to be informed he's actually in 5060: the ruins he was in were of a city destroyed in 2075.
- The protagonist of The Big Lie from Image Comics (a book about the events of 9/11) does this at the start of the story, discovering she has arrived several days earlier than she intended.
- In Dumbledore's Army, Harry receives visions of two future attacks. A few chapters are spent trying to pinpoint these through newspapers and school assignments.
- Inverted in Out of Time when Kenshin from the revolution ends up time traveling twelve years into the future (during the main series). While Sano has figured out what's going on, Kenshin isn't convinced (and is rather intent on killing Sano, believing he's a spy). Sano's barely able to get him to look at an old discarded newspaper, which wins him over.
- In Idiocracy, Joe (and the viewer) finds out what year he's in by seeing a magazine cover* dated 2505 (which he thinks is a misprint), and then a receipt that confirms the date on the magazine.
- Marty does this in the first and second Back to the Future movies.
- A variation occurs in Field of Dreams, where Ray figures out he's walked back into 1979 by checking the registration date on a Minnesota license plate.
- In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it Funny Background Event in Hot Fuzz, one of the security tapes Nicholas Angel is reviewing has a suspect hold up a newspaper, quite blatantly showing it to the camera to establish that it wasn't filmed later, despite the Fridge Logic.
- In 50 First Dates, a character with short-term memory loss doesn't know what year it is, until she sees a newspaper. This is the result of her father arranging for hundreds of copies of the newspaper from the day of her accident, to keep her from having to deal with it for as long as possible
- In Midnight Run the second not-so-bright bounty hunter is trying to sell out Charles Grodin's character to his mob bosses and uses a picture of the day's paper, taken in the bathroom of the motel where he has Grodin's character hidden. Unfortunately for him, the towels for the motel, with it's name plainly seen, are hanging on a rack in the background.
- Played with in To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis. The main character needs to find out the exact date he landed in order to correctly fulfill his Set Right What Once Went Wrong mission. He finds a newspaper, but doesn't realize that it's several days old...
- Connie Willis does this again in Blackout. A time traveler finds half a newspaper and tries to use it to figure out the date. First it turns out to be the half that doesn't have the date printed on it, so he has to use his knowledge of history to correlate the stories in the paper with the date. After he manages to figure it out, he starts talking to people, and through a series of conversational missteps realizes that the paper is again several days older than he thought it was.
- Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love. Lazarus Long travels back in time and reads a newspaper to learn the current date: August 1, 1916. This is about three years earlier than he intended to arrive, since he'd planned to skip World War I.
- Kyon does this in the novel The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi, in which he finds himself on a time traveling trip. Upon arriving in one time period, he considers asking What Year Is This?, but swiftly discards the idea after realizing how demented he would look to others and instead heads for a convenience store to check the newspapers.
- The limited-run school stories anthology Spooky has a lot of its stories featuring this trope, mainly because people ended up in the past a lot.
- Done straight in Terry Pratchett's Johnny And The Bomb.
- Used in novels 5 through 7 of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series
- Variation in Animorphs: Jake, while trapped in a post-apocalyptic New York City, tries to determine when humanity lost by the dates in a bombed-out magazine stand.
- Toward the end of Robert A. Heinlein's Methuselah's Children, the characters have returned to Earth in their stolen starship, but don't want to land until they know how much time has passed since they fled an oppressive government. One of the characters, Andy Libby, determines the approximate date by examining the relative positions of the planets in the Solar System. (75 years have passed.)
- Around the World in Eighty Days has what might be considered a non-time-travel aversion, in that Phileas Fogg apparently never checks the date on a newspaper after crossing the Pacific. Had he done so he would have realised that he had gained a day after crossing the International Date Line.
Live Action TV
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Spectre of the Gun", Captain Kirk finds a copy of the Tombstone Epitaph dated October 26th, 1881. On YouTube here, starting at 5:30. *
- Doctor Who:
- Kathy Nightingale does this in "Blink", though it's as much to convince her that she time-traveled at all as to determine the date.
- In "Rise of the Cybermen", the TARDIS crashes and Mickey uses this method to determine that they have landed in modern London; it then transpires that they've passed into a parallel universe by accident.
- Also used in "Daleks in Manhattan" where the Doctor attempts to work out the date from how complete the Empire State building is, whilst Martha picks up a newpaper from a bench behind them.
- In "The Unicorn and the Wasp", the Doctor figures out what year it is by other clues, but the exact date turns out to be important.
- In "The Unquiet Dead", the Doctor uses a paper to determine that they are not, in fact, in 1860 Naples, but rather 1869 Cardiff. Rose doesn't care until she hears that last bit. "Right..."
- In "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", the TARDIS crew discover they are in 2164 (or later) from a calendar in an abandoned warehouse.
- Happens around Once an Episode in Quantum Leap.
- As well as in its modern incarnation, Journeyman.
- That was a key element of a two-part Faked Rip Van Winkle ploy in the first Mission: Impossible series. After escaping the futuristic hospital he had woken up in, the mark goes to the first newspaper booth he sees (right in front of the hospital) and "discovers" that he hasn't been out that long.
- In the episode "In The Beginning", Dean realizes he's been sent back in time by the angel Castiel when he goes into a diner and sees the date on the newspaper of the man next to him (who happens to be his father).
- He also does it when he is raised from the dead in "Lazarus Rising" due to time flowing much slower in Hell than on Earth.
- An episode of The Outer Limits has a variation. A group think they have been transported to an alien planet, but gradually figure out they are in the distant future. A look at the expiration date of a discarded candy bar wrapper confirms this. (By no means accurate, but close enough for their purposes).
- In the 1981 Afterschool Special My Mother was Never a Kid Victoria Martin, after getting into an argument with her mother, seemingly travels through time during a subway trip, and meets her mother as a teenager she only confirms her travel by finding a newspaper dated 1944. She comes to realize that she and her mother are very much the same. In the end we find out it was all just a dream
- Subverted in an episode of 3rd Rock From The Sun. Dick, who already thinks he's losing his mind, is in a doctor's waiting room filled with, of course, old magazines. After rifling through them, he panics, declaring "Oh my god, it's 1994!" (The episode aired in 1997 in case you were wondering.)
- Subverted in Red Dwarf, "Backwards" - the date on the newspaper was 3991, but by that point Kryten had realized that everything was backwards, so the actual year was 1993.
- This trope is how the protagonists of Flash Forward find out that the eponymous flash forwards are supposed to show the future.
- This shows up in the Charmed episode "That '70s Episode", when the protagonists time-travel back to the 1970s.
- In Time Splitters: Future Perfect, Cortez picks up a photo of the Big Bad. The Mission Control proposes a complex scheme to determine when/where to send Cortez to, regarding the building heights and designs. Cortez waits through the speech, then reads out the date, time and place from the back of the photo.
- Deliberately subverted in The Lost Crown: A Ghost-Hunting Adventure, because newspapers only say what day of which month it is, not the year. Other documents that do suggest dates by year are wildly contradictory (e.g. a book given as a signed gift in the 1950s, yet published in 1978).
- In Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, Layton first realizes how far into the future he is when he finds a newspaper and realizes that the date is 10 years into the future.