The meeting that defined the requirements of the new language took place on May 28–29, 1959. Charles Phillips prepared a memo several months later summarizing the decisions made at that meeting. Its listing of requirements is reprinted on page 201 of the ACM’s History of Programming Languages.
a. Majority of group supported maximum use of simple English language; even though some participants suggested there might be advantage from using mathematical symbolism.
b. A minority suggested we steer away from problem-oriented language because English is not a panacea as it cannot be manipulated as algebraic expressions can.
c. The need is for a programming language that is easier to use, even if somewhat less powerful.
d. We need to broaden the base of those who can state problems to computers.
e. The [Common Business Language] should not be biased by present compiler problems.
The committee did not consider FORTRAN as an alternative. According to Jean E. Sammet, who was chair (She describes herself as the “chairman”) of two of the committees that developed COBOL and served on a third, the major inspirations were FLOW-MATIC (developed by Grace Hopper and others for Remington-Rand Univac), AIMACO (developed by the Air Materiel Command based on Hopper’s work, and described by Sammet as “a minor modification of FLOW-MATIC”) and COMTRAN (Commercial Translator, which at that time existed as a manual at IBM, and had never been implemented). Sammet claims that FACT, developed at Honeywell, had far less influence on COBOL than some people believed.
The entire chapter I link to has extensive notes that Sammet took at the time from the committee that developed COBOL, and the decisions it made.
She makes the particularly interesting admission on page 221:
I felt there was a strong anti-IBM bias in this committee from me, and from some (but certainly not all) of the others. Since I was not working for IBM at the time, I can freely (although not with pride) admit that in some cases suggestions or decisions were made on the basis of doing things differently from how IBM did it. For example, we felt that the verb for loop control should not be called
DO because that was how FORTRAN did it.
Sammet lists among the ideas COBOL took from FLOW-MATIC, “It used full data names rather than short symbolic names (as in FORTRAN)” e.g.
SOCIAL-SECUR instead of
SOCSEC, and used English words as commands. Less cosmetically, it allowed fields to be packed into a data word. She says, “Note that Fortran assumes that every number is in a single machine word.” It separated data definitions from instructions, which she says became so commonplace that it’s difficult to appreciate what a conceptual breakthrough it was.
Among the ideas she lists as coming from COMTRAN are nested data structures, expressions, and conditionals. It was controversial at that time to allow mathematical formulas and even Boolean expressions, as some committee members believed those were only needed in a few edge cases.
She also states that IAL, which developed into ALGOL, had a significant influence, by convincing the committee not to follow its example, and instead allow in its source code only characters that actually exist.