Her death was announced by the Gridiron Club one of Washington s leading news societies. Ms. Thomas was a past president of that organization.
Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and later Hearst Newspapers. To her colleagues she was the unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps her status ratified by her signature line at the end of every White House news conference Thank you Mr. President.
Her blunt questions and sharp tone made her a familiar personality not only in the parochial world inside the Washington Beltway but also among television audiences across the country.
Helen was a true pioneer opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism President Obama said in a statement on Saturday. She never failed to keep presidents myself included on their toes.
Presidents grew to respect even to like Ms. Thomas for her forthrightness and stamina which sustained her well after the age at which most people had settled into retirement. President Bill Clinton gave her a cake on Aug. 4 1997 her 77th birthday. Twelve years later President Obama gave her cupcakes for her 89th. At his first news conference in February 2009 Mr. Obama called on her saying Helen I m excited. This is my inaugural moment.
But 16 months later Ms. Thomas abruptly announced her retirement from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and go back where they belonged perhaps Germany or Poland. Her remarks made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event set off a storm when a videotape was posted.
In her retirement announcement Ms. Thomas whose parents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon said that she deeply regretted her remarks and that they did not reflect her heartfelt belief that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced mutual respect and tolerance.
May that day come soon she said.
Ms. Thomas s career bridged two eras beginning during World War II when people got their news mostly from radio newspapers and movie newsreels and extending into the era of 24 hour information on cable television and the Internet. She resigned from U.P.I. on May 16 2000 a day after it was taken over by an organization with links to the Unification Church.
Weeks later Ms. Thomas was hired by Hearst to write a twice weekly column on national issues. She spent the last 10 years of her working life there.
When Ms. Thomas took a job as a radio writer for United Press in 1943 (15 years before it merged with the International News Service to become U.P.I.) most female journalists wrote about social events and homemaking. The journalists who covered war crime and politics and congratulated one another over drinks at the press club were typically men.
She worked her way into full time reporting and by the mid 1950s was covering federal agencies. She covered John F. Kennedy s presidential campaign in 1960 and when he won she became the first woman assigned to the White House full time by a news service.
Ms. Thomas was also the first woman to be elected an officer of the White House Correspondents Association and the first to serve as its president. In 1975 she became the first woman elected to the Gridiron Club which for 90 years had been a men only bastion of Washington journalists.
Ms. Thomas was known for her dawn to dark work hours and she won her share of exclusives and near exclusives. She was the only female print journalist to accompany President Richard M. Nixon on his breakthrough trip to China in 1972.
Helen was a better reporter than she was a writer but in her prime had more than her share of scoops the rest of us would try to match Mark Knoller the longtime CBS News White House reporter wrote in a Twitter message on Saturday morning.
And he added Pity the poor WH press aide who would try to tell Helen You can t stand there.
Mark Landler contributed reporting.