Bryn has provided verifiable evidence from 1918.
The tribal practice of decapitating enemies and preserving their heads gave us the first sense of headhunter around 1800. Nowadays we’re more likely to think of the less gruesome recruitment practice of targeting highly skilled or experienced personnel. The evidence suggests that this sense emerged in the United States, where our first example of headhunter, in 1960, comes from:
1960 Harold Wentworth & Stuart Berg Flexner Dictionary of American Slang 248/2
The executive type of headhunter was surely active prior to the word appearing in this slang dictionary. Can you find any earlier examples?
Posted by OED_Editor on 22 October 2012 7.36