Author and former Newsday journalist David Kahn, seen in 2004,...

Author and former Newsday journalist David Kahn, seen in 2004, died on Jan. 23 at age 93. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Author and journalist David Kahn, a former reporter and editor for Newsday, died on Jan. 23 at his assisted-living facility in the Bronx. He was 93. Raised — and for many years residing — in Great Neck, he had suffered a stroke in 2015 and eventually died of natural causes, his family said.

Regarded as one of the leading authorities in cryptography, Kahn wrote “The Codebreakers” (1967), which a Washington Post reporter in 1972 called “perhaps the definitive book” on the subject.

“Being a journalist was at the heart of everything he did,” said his son Michael Kahn, of Manhattan. “When he wrote ‘The Codebreakers,’ cryptography was a very shadowy, dark area, and he shed light on it. And a lot of the powers that be weren't appreciative of that fact, especially people in the CIA and the NSA. And they told their agents, ‘Hey, if this guy David Kahn comes up to you, don't give him any information.’ ”

The intelligence community’s enmity did not last. In 1995, David Kahn was named scholar-in-residence at the National Security Agency. The late former CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner called Kahn “the world’s premiere authority on code-breaking,” and NSA historian David Hatch told Newsday in 2004, "[N]obody has written as widely, lectured as wisely and had his popular appeal.”

“He was outgoing, he was fun, he was a reporter in every sense of the word," said his daughter-in-law Shana Kahn, of Manhattan. "He interviewed every person he met to learn about who they were. He was interested in what made people around him tick and what made them who they were.” 

David Kahn was born on Feb. 7, 1930, in New York City, the eldest of three children of attorney Jesse Kahn and Florence Abraham Kahn. When he was a child, the family moved to Great Neck, where he attended Great Neck High School. Going on to a degree from Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University in 1951, he would later return to school to earn a doctorate in history from Oxford University in England in 1974.

He joined Newsday in the 1950s, working as a reporter through 1963 before going on to the New York Herald Tribune at its copy desk in Paris. Following other work, including teaching journalism at New York University in the 1970s, he returned to Newsday as assistant editor of the op-ed page and on the copy desk from 1979 until his retirement from the paper in the late 1990s.

“He was the most overqualified copy editor I’ve ever known,” said Jack Millrod, Newsday's director of editorial technology, who was Kahn's editor in the late 1990s. “You didn't need an expert in cryptology to do the work we were doing,” he fondly half-joked. “But he was just so easygoing. He was a student of the English language and he brought a writer’s sensibility to editing.”

Kahn gave over 2,800 books and 130,000 pages of notes to the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Museum, and donated a first-print book on cryptology, Johannes Trithemius' “Polygraphiae” of 1518. Kahn was honored in a 2010 ceremony at the museum’s unveiling of a collection in his name.

“He knew everybody in Washington in the national security area,” said retired Newsday editorial page editor Jim Klurfeld. “He had terrific sources at the CIA and NSA. When David called, they all knew him.”

After having been fascinated as a child with Fletcher Pratt’s “Secret and Urgent” (1939), a history of codes, ciphers and cryptography, Kahn joined the American Cryptogram Association. Kahn’s 1960 article for The New York Times Magazine about two NSA defectors to the Soviet Union led to his writing “The Codebreakers.”

For all his accomplishments, said his son, “He'd go on TV and then he'd come home and have to take out the garbage.”

His 1969 marriage to the late Susanne Fiedler ended in divorce in the mid-1990s. Kahn continued to live in Great Neck until 2010. In addition to Michael, the couple’s younger son, Kahn is survived by their elder son, Oliver, of Colorado. His siblings, Louis Kahn and Miriam Kahn Harris, predeceased him.

A funeral service was held in Great Neck on Jan. 25, followed by interment at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated David Kahn's hometown of Great Neck.

Latest Videos

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months