The orchestra was founded as a full time organisation in 1930 by Adrian Boult. He remained principal conductor until 1950, when Malcolm Sargent took over (holding the post until 1957). Other principal conductors have included Antal Doráti (1962-66), Colin Davis (1967-71), Pierre Boulez (1971-75), Gennady Rozhdestvensky (1978-81) and Andrew Davis (no relation to Colin) who held from the post from 1989 until he was succeeded by Leonard Slatkin in 2000. Also in 2000, the orchestra appointed its first Associate Composer, Mark-Anthony Turnage.
As well as these principal conductors, the orchestra has had several notable guest conductors, including Arturo Toscanini.
The orchestra frequently commissions works by contemporary composers, and is a particular champion of new British works. Harrison Birtwistle's Earth Dances, Pierre Boulez' Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna and John Tavener's The Protecting Veil were all BBC commissions first played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The other BBC orchestras are the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra.