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I was reading this question and one of the video clips in the question had an exchange between Tarkin and Vader that got me thinking:

VADER: He is here.

TARKIN: Obi-Wan Kenobi. What makes you think so?

VADER: A tremor in the Force. The last time I felt it was in the presence of my old master.

TARKIN: Surely he must be dead by now.

VADER: Don't underestimate the Force.

TARKIN: The Jedi are extinct. Their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion. [An intercom beeps, which Tarkin answers] Yes?

INTERCOM: We've received an alert in Section AA23.

TARKIN: The princess? Put all stations on alert!

VADER: Obi-Wan is here. The Force is with him.

TARKIN: If you are right, he must not be allowed to escape.

VADER: Escape is not his plan. I must face him alone.

--- Star Wars: A New Hope

Obi-wan Kenobi, at the time of ANH, was only 57 years old. He had defeated Anakin Skywalker on Mustafar and then disappeared. He hadn't been killed by Vader as so many of the other former Jedi who had survived Order 66 (and here) had, so why would Tarkin, considering his presumed knowledge of the Empire's interest in and files on extant Jedi (particularly those that he served with/under during The Clone Wars) have thought that a 57-year old Obi-wan Kenobi must have been dead by that point?

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    Kenobi and Yoda were in hiding and, absent an ongoing manhunt for them, there would be no reason for anyone to think any Jedi survived Order 66. That was why they hid themselves in the first place. – rld Nov 6 '19 at 18:26
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    They must be dead because they've not been seen for nearly 20 years while the Empire takes over the Galaxy – Valorum Nov 6 '19 at 18:36
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    My impression when watching the original trilogy before TPM was released was that Obi-Wan was much older than his 60s (although Sir Alec was only 63 at the time). The prequels did bring a few discrepancies to the story. – HorusKol Nov 6 '19 at 20:19
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    When watching A New Hope, there was no history, no idea for us that Anikan was Vader. 40 years of backstory has undermined the original work. – Verdan Nov 6 '19 at 23:31
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    I agree with @HorusKol 's impression. Watching the movie in 1977 or 78 there was never any doubt for me that Tarkin meant he must have died of old age in the meantime. The translators probably had the same impression, scince in the German dubbed version the wording and tone support that interpretation. – Volker Landgraf Nov 7 '19 at 17:43
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I think Tarkin's follow-up gets to the answer:

TARKIN: Surely he must be dead by now.

VADER: Don't underestimate the Force.

TARKIN: The Jedi are extinct. Their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion. [An intercom beeps, which Tarkin answers] Yes?

So it's not so much that Tarkin believes that Kenobi must be dead by now, it's that he believes that ALL Jedi by now must be dead.

This is in line with Han's stated disbelief in the power of the Force, and this line from Admiral Motti:

MOTTI: Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerous ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebels' hidden fortress...

There are a lot of fan-provided reasons why even high-ranking officers of a certain age seem to act as though 20 years ago was 200 years ago and have completely forgotten thousands of years of history. The simplest answer is propaganda: the Jedi were traitors and have now been completely destroyed, the less said about them the better. Presumably the official Empire line is not "Obi-Wan kicked Darth Vader's butt, left him to die, and then eluded capture for twenty years." It's "That's classified, and keep asking and you'll find out where he went."

The original script mentions Vader hunting down the Jedi, but the notion that there were still dozens of Jedi at large around time of A New Hope (and even fighting in the Rebellion!) was largely created after the fact by comics, novels, video games, etc. “Luke, when gone am I, the last of the Jedi will you be," Yoda tells him in Return of the Jedi. The clear intent of the original trilogy is that save for Yoda and Obi-Wan, all the Jedi had been extinguished. So if you didn't know that those two were still alive and was told a Jedi, any Jedi, was on your ship, you'd give the same answer: surely he's dead by now?

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  • I think both Keith Morrison's answer, and Valorum's line of reasoning in the question comments, are quite accurate, but I think you've hit the nail on the head insofar as what the creators were thinking at the time they made this. – Phyneas Nov 7 '19 at 21:54
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Obi-wan by the point the Empire was declared was known as a great warrior, a Master and member of the Jedi Council, determinator hero, opponent to Palpatine, with a serious dedication to justice, and knew who Darth Vader really was. Tarkin had met him personally and knew all that about him. For Kenobi to have simply hid quietly for nearly two decades and done nothing in opposition to the Empire, even while the last of his fellow Jedi were hunted down and eliminated, would have seemed inconceivable. It was totally out of character for what Tarkin knew about him, so the logical conclusion was that he didn't because he couldn't, and the most likely reason he couldn't was that he was dead.

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