Born in Salford, England, as Alfred Cooke, he legally added the name "Alistair" at age 22. He was educated at Blackpool Grammar School and Jesus College, Cambridge, where he gained a first-class honours degree in English. As a graduate student, he went to Yale University for two years on a fellowship.
Shortly after emigrating, Cooke suggested to the BBC the idea of doing the London Letter in reverse: a 15-minute talk for British listeners on life in America. The BBC was not keen, and the first American Letter was not broadcast until March 24, 1946. The series was not initially expected to last long, but it was still going in 1950, when it was renamed Letter From America; it was still going in 1991, when Alistair Cooke received a special BAFTA silver award for his contribution to Anglo American relations; and, as of 2003, Letter From America is still being recorded every week and broadcast not only in Britain but many other Commonwealth countries as well.
In 1947, Cooke became a foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. (It was, incidentally, the first time he had been employed as a staff reporter; all his previous work had been freelance.) He has also served as foreign correspondent for the Times.
Alistair Cooke's America, a 13-part television series about the United States and its history, was first broadcast in both Britain and the US in 1973, and was followed by a book of the same title. It was a great success in both countries, and resulted in Cooke being invited to address the joint Houses of the United States Congress as part of Congress's bicentennial celebrations. Alistair Cooke has said that, of all his work, Alistair Cooke's America is what he is most proud of; it is the result and expression of his long love of America. (Cooke was once asked how long it took him to make the series. "I do not want to be coy," he replied, "but it took 40 years.")