In 2008, David Alexander with Reuters reported that presidents saluting is actually a “thorny debate.” Alexander wrote that the military has long had a practice of saluting the commander in chief, but the president saluting back didn’t start until President Ronald Reagan.
“Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general, did not return military salutes while president. Nor had other presidents,” Alexander noted.
Carey Winfrey, the editor of Smithsonian magazine who was in the Marine Corps, has more on the history of military salutes in a 2009 New York Times article. The piece discusses whether presidents should salute as Marines are taught never to salute out of uniform and he didn’t quite regard the president’s suits a uniform. Ultimately, Winfrey called the president’s salute “impeccable in every way.” Here’s more on Reagan’s salutes that started it all:
Presidents have long been saluted, but they began returning salutes relatively recently. Ronald Reagan was thought to be the first, in 1981. He had sought advice on the matter from Gen. Robert Barrow, commandant of the Marine Corps. According to John Kline, then Mr. Reagan’s military aide and today a member of Congress from Minnesota, General Barrow told the president that as commander in chief he could salute anybody he wished. And so it began.
Mr. Reagan’s successors continued the practice, and I continued to be conflicted — believing that when it comes to salutes (and one or two other matters), presidents deserved to be cut some slack, but also feeling a little uneasy about the whole thing.