Initially, this phrase meant either a story was “breaking” into a non-news broadcast due to its importance, or that the news organization reporting the story was the first to report it. The phrase connotes a sense of urgency and at first only the most important and newsworthy events would be given the designation of “breaking news.”
However, cable news stations soon realized that unless a significant world event was occurring, viewers would not be willing to keep their eyes glued to a 24-hour long newscast. This was not best for ratings, as American audiences in-particular would not simply turn off the television and mow the lawn or go to work. Instead, they would change the channel and watch Maury Povich for the rest of the day.
In an effort to keep those very important eyeballs on the screen, a news executive at CNN declared, “Let’s have a breaking news story every 5 minutes.” And so, “breaking news” was watered down to its present form, which is any thought, comment, quote, or phrase that might keep viewers watching.