The first usage to come close to this is the exchange of letters to the editor of The Observer in 1938. On 16 January 1938, The Observer published a letter, signed “Habit”, in which the reader inquired about Tolkien’s sources in The Hobbit. Tolkien’s “jesting reply” (cf. Letters #26, 4 March 1938) was published four days later. I haven’t read the original letter. It’s available from The Observer’s digital archives, but not for free — does anyone have a copy they might share? Without the original at hand, I don’t know whether the original inquirer went beyond merely signing as “Habit”; if not, the tiresome old pun we know today is barely inchoate.Er, actually, I have read the original letter! It was about seven years ago, and I had simply forgotten. The mountain of new primary material that has come to light in the last decade is staggering enough that this happens from time to time. Normally, my memory of what I’ve seen is very good — at least good enough to remember there was something and where I probably saw it, if not some of the particulars. That’s enough to get me back to the source where I can refresh my memory on the primary materials I don’t often cite. But in this case, I clean forgot.
So where is it? Why, in the most logical place for it: John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit, of course! Specifically, it’s in Appendix II, “Tolkien’s Letter to The Observer (The Hobyahs)”. The original letter from “Habit” is reproduced on p. 855 (in both my two-volume Houghton Mifflin first edition and in my one-volume Harper Collins revised edition).
So, now having rediscovered this and reread it, I can say that the original correspondent indeed went no further than merely hinting at the pun through his assumed cognomen. So that’s settled. :)