By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
June 13, 2009

“We look forward to Steve returning to Apple at the end of June.”

How often have you heard that? A Google search for the exact phrase turns up roughly 400 instances, most of them attributed to Apple (AAPL) spokesman Steve Dowling, who is nothing if not disciplined.

The sentence is a variation on the last line of Steve Jobs’ Jan. 14 memo to his staff, the one in which he announced that he was taking a six-month medical leave to deal with health-related issues. “I look forward,” he wrote, “to seeing all of you this summer.”

The phrase “look forward” is useful, because it gives you deniability if something goes wrong. Dowling incorporated the phrase into his stock answer and has been using the statement — without a word out of place — ever since.

Ask him or any other Apple executive about the health of their CEO and they’ll invariably reply with those same 13 words: “We look forward to Steve returning to Apple at the end of June.”

I mention this because as the end of June approaches, hardly a day goes by without some journalist hearing this sentence and reporting it as news.

The latest example: Mike Harvey, technology correspondent for the London Times. His 675-word story, filed Friday and widely picked up by other news outlets, begins like this:

“Steve Jobs will return to work at Apple at the end of this month, it was confirmed today…”

And how was this “confirmed”?

By a spokesman who told Harvey: “We look forward to Steve returning to Apple at the end of June.”

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