Compact Cassette: what’s in the name?

Reflective Observer
4 min readJul 15, 2022


What do you call this? I can help you with some choices:

  • tape cartridge
  • tape cassette
  • cassette tape
  • compact cassette
  • audio cassette
  • tape
  • cassette

One of these names is an official trademark, and another one is just plain wrong, but which one is which? To answer this, we need to learn some history.

In the early 1960s Philips set forth to design a new audio tape cartridge. By 1962 its engineers created a cartridge similar to an earlier RCA design, but much smaller.

RCA sound tape cartridge vs. Philips two-spool cartridge

This is the very first tape recorder based on this design, the Philips EL 3300, along with a cartridge, the EL 1903.

First Philips cassette recorder (1963, Photo by Royal Philips)

Philips introduced its new cartridge system in Europe in 1963. The next year the new system was presented in North America, where it was sold under Norelco brand. (Norelco was the brand name Philips used in North America at that time).

Norelco Carry-Corder 150 (1965)

The Norelco Carry Corder came bundled with cartridges; the machine was described as cartridge tape recorder.

Norelco Tape Cartridge (U.S.) and Philips Demonstration Cartridge (U.K.)

One of the tape cartridges included in the package was a demonstration tape for the tape recorder to introduce itself:

This is your Norelco Carry Corder speaking … What size reel do I play, you ask? Well, that’s where I’ve got you. I don’t. I’m a cartridge player. Just pop in a cartridge, and I’m ready to go!

“Tape cartridge” was written in a slanted typeface with an already recognizable contour line.

By 1965 Philips chose the French word “cassette”, which means “small keep box”, to describe its cartridges and made the format available royalty-free to whoever wanted to produce compact cassettes.

Norelco Carry Corder 150 package (1965)

Philips never have used the words “cassette tape” to describe its product simply because it would be grammatically incorrect.

Compare it to Super 8 film cartridge, for example— it is not called cartridge film. Or a gasoline canister — it is not called canister gasoline. Or a water bucket, cookie jar, beer can or matchbox.

Super 8 film cartridge

If you feel that “film cartridge” and “tape cartridge” are perfectly normal, then “tape cassette” should feel normal as well, after all “cartridge” and “cassette” mean exactly the same.

The only legitimate use case for “cassette tape” is when one is talking about the tape itself, usually when comparing it to some other tape, like reel-to-reel tape:

  • Cassette tape is thinner than reel-to-reel tape.
  • Cassette tape is more fragile than reel-to-reel tape.
  • Nagra SN is a cassette tape recorder. What? Well, yes, this particular Nagra reel-to-reel recorder is loaded with cassette tape because the original reel-to-reel 0.15-inch wide tape was not available. So, it is a machine that records on cassette tape, you may even call it a cassette tape recorder.
Nagra SN Micro playback test by Gregory Botha

Actually, “cassette tape recorder” does not mean a recorder that uses cassette tape, it means a tape recorder that uses tape cassettes.

In 1980s compact cassettes were still occasionally referred to as cartridges. Here is a “Complimentary Tape Cartridge” that would come with each new Oldsmobile car between 1983 and 1986.

Oldsmobile Complimentary Tape Cartridge (1983–1986)

Gradually, manufacturers dropped the Compact Cassette name and logo in favor of a simple “audio cassette” label, because by the end of the 20th century compact cassette had become a dominant audio tape cartridge format.

Compact cassettes labeled as audio cassettes

So, feel free to call this rectangular plastic thing “cassette” or “audio cassette” or even a “tape cartridge”, but please, do not call it “cassette tape” if you have an ounce of respect to English language. The fact that even reputable news organizations have used and still use this moniker does not make it right, unless you subscribe to the idea that a lie told a thousand times becomes truth.

This is pretty much all I wanted to say. And now you can watch a video if you want to listen to the Philips tape recorder introducing itself and to see the Nagra tape recorder in action.