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Earlier forms included vandgard and (a)vantgard, derived from Old French avan(t)garde ("before guard").
vanguard (plural vanguards)
- (military) The leading units at the front of an army or fleet.
- Synonyms: advance guard, avant-garde (obsolete)
- Antonym: rearguard
1622, Francis, Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Alban [i.e. Francis Bacon], The Historie of the Raigne of King Henry the Seventh, [...], London: [...] W[illiam] Stansby for Matthew Lownes, and William Barret, OCLC 1086746628, page 35:
They say, that the King diuided his Armie into three Battailes; whereof the Vant-guard onely well strengthened with wings, came to fight.
- (by extension) The person(s) at the forefront of any group or movement.
- Synonym: avant-garde
1922, Ben Travers, chapter 4, in A Cuckoo in the Nest:
By some paradoxical evolution rancour and intolerance have been established in the vanguard of primitive Christianity. Mrs. Spoker, in common with many of the stricter disciples of righteousness, was as inclement in demeanour as she was cadaverous in aspect.
2014 November 17, Roger Cohen, "The horror! The horror! The trauma of ISIS [print version: International New York Times, 18 November 2014, page 9]", in The New York Times:
[O]ne minute this "Jihadi John" was struggling to get by, and get accepted, in drizzly England, unemployed with a mortgage to pay and a chip on his shoulder, and the next he stands in brilliant Levantine sunlight, where everything is clear and etched, at the vanguard of some Sunni Risorgimento intent on subjecting the world to its murderous brand of Wahhabi Islam.
forefront of any group or movement