Every year around this time some pleople make a list of the most overworked words and phrases. A few years ago one was "on the ground," especially "the situation on the ground" in Iraq or Afghanistan, but also "boots on the ground," "reporters on the ground," etc. Christopher Borrelli complained "what else would troops be doing, hovering?"
I sympathize, but today I remet an old friend, Mark Twain's Roughing It, published in 1872, and in his Preferatory I came across this phrase "no books were written by persons who were on the ground in person..." Clearly the same meaning.
I have since found the phrase (through the very wonderful twin websites, Making Of America) in an article that appeared in American Whig Review in 1845. It was clearly describing a military siuation.
So the phrase may be overused, but it is venerable, at least.