‘Pay it forward’ was used as a key plot element in the denouement of a New Comedy play by Menander, Dyskolos (a title which can be translated as “The Grouch”). Dyskolos was a prizewinning play in ancient Athens in 317 BC; however, the text of the play was lost and it was only recovered and republished in 1957.
The concept was rediscovered and described by Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Benjamin Webb dated April 25, 1784
I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.
In 1916, Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.”
Woody Hayes (February 14, 1913 – March 12, 1987) was a college football coach who is best remembered for winning five national titles and 13 Big Ten championships in 28 years at The Ohio State University. He misquoted Emerson as having said
“You can pay back only seldom. You can always pay forward, and you must pay line for line, deed for deed, and cent for cent.”