As a professional wrestler of over twelve years, it becomes increasingly frustrating when I see more and more new people entering the business and having no clue what they are doing. The emergence of the internet has led to so much misinformation about the wrestling business that it is ridiculous. Not only has the internet become an inaccurate "how-to" manual for wanna-be wrestlers, and promoters, but it has propagated so much information about "insider terms" and practices that the way things actually work has been lost.
Booking is the biggest victim of the internet.
The term "booker" is not an inside wrestling term of any kind. You might think it is some sort of kayfabe related term, but in reality there are bookers in many fields. According to Webster's Dictionary, a booker is someone that registers something for some future activity or condition (as to engage transportation or reserve lodgings), schedules engagements for (book the band for a week), sets aside time for (your session is booked for four o'clock), or to reserve in advance (book two seats at the theater). Bookers are simply people that book performers for evcents - be it bands in a bar, comedians on stage in a club, or guests on talk shows.
In the days before the territories, talent bookers were the real power players in professional wrestling. Bookers were essentially agents for wrestlers that would scout talent and put them under contract, and then in turn, hire them out to promoters for a fee. To provide a fictional example, suppose Tom Smith were an agent, who had a wrestler such as Lou Thesz under contract. Before the territory days, Smith would book Thesz to whomever would pay the fee to book Thesz. Thesz might appear in New York on Monday, Chicago on Tuesday, and Los Angeles on Wednesday.
As the territorial system was established with the emergence of the National Wrestling Alliance, the individuals with the talent under their employ became more important, as they began to network and trade talent, depending on the needs of the promoters in the various territories. Eventually, the position of booker evolved, and the booker was the officer of the company that arranged what talent appeared in the territory. In this system, the booking office was established in each territory, with the actual event promoters working with the office to arrange talent to appear on their events. The office was usually established in the hub of a territory, and the booker's job was to provide talent to fill the cards.
To illustrate this point, lets make up a fictional "Ohio Territory". The hub would be Columbus, where the office is. Within the Ohio Territory, there are weekly shows in Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Akron, and Youngstown. Plus, there are spot shows in smaller towns such as Portsmouth, Chillicothe, Sandusky, Zanesville, Lima, and Marion. The Booker would be the person who was in charge of making sure there was enough talent working in the territory to make sure each of these cards had enough wrestlers. It was also the booker's responsibility to make sure that the wrestlers appearing on each card were satisfactory to the promoters in those towns.
Chances are that the cards promoted regularly in the large towns would draw bigger crowds (and thus a higher payday) than the spot shows, so the wrestlers are obviously going to want to appear on those cards. However, a mid-card wrestler on a weekly show may make the same amount of money working a main event on a spot show, especially if there is a chance they would face a headliner. It was the job of the booker to make every show as loaded as it could be, while also working within the budget of the promoter of the card.
The actual match-ups that happened in each town were determined by the matchmakers for the card's promoter. For example, if a booker sent one headliner, four mid-carders, and seven preliminary wrestlers to a spot show, the matchmaker would be the individual that would determine who wrestled in what spots on the card. The matchmaker would make the card that he thinks would draw the biggest gate for the promoter, so they could make as much money as possible.
The bookers originally morphed from pseudo-agents to working for the promoters because they often held the matchmaking positions for the arenas throughout the territory, because they controlled the talent. A large arena in a main town like Cincinnati or Cleveland would want to feature wrestling every week, so they would hire an individual to promote the weekly events. When the same individual or company held this position for multiple arenas, a territory was established, because the office was able to guarantee dates for talent. When an office had the talent's schedules full, smaller promoters had to work with them in order to have access to the talent.
As time went on many of the arenas were replaced with more modern venues, or the smaller promoters moved on to other things. As this happened, the lines between booking office and promoter were blurred, as many booking offices began to promote shows at the arenas in order to keep the talent's schedules full. This was a small change in practice, but economically it was significant, because the booking office was no longer collecting a fee for booking talent, but rather making profits on the difference between the cost of running a show and the expenses.
In many circumstances, the booker and the promoter became the same person. For example, the office is running the towns of Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, and Toledo as the promoter, but is working with the promoters in Akron, Youngstown, and the spot towns as the booking office. In the territory days, the biggest form of promotion was the local studio wrestling program on television, which was then cycled throughout the territory. So, a match that was headlining in Cincinnati would be built up on television in Youngstown as well, and thus that match would eventually need to come to Youngstown. This essentially caused the promoters in those towns to turn into matchmakers, trying to keep their cards consistant with what was being promoted by the office throughout the territory.
Over time, as the territories died off, the only thing left was a central office attempting to promote, book, and make the matches on the individual shows. As weekly wrestling died off, all that was left were spot shows. With smaller houses came smaller revenues - which meant that the promoter, booker, and matchmaker were often the same person.
As the internet began exposing the inner workings of professional wrestling, the term "booker" was suddenly the en vogue term for the person who made the matches on the card. Suddenly, the individuals making matches in the major promotions, such as the WWE or TNA, were referred to as the "booker", when they were essentially matchmakers with the responsibility of fleshing out cards that would get the biggest ratings or highest PPV buyrates.
In reality, the booker is the person that would hire the talent and put them under contract to the company. Signing a piece of talent to a contract means that you are booking them for the term of the contract - even if they are not used!
It boggles my mind how many people inside this business use the term incorrectly. I did not think it was that complicated, but it just shows how many people out there do not have a clear picture of the background to this wonderful sport.