Originating in a USO activity created by Canadian Don Reid for World War II soldiers, the game was developed into a radio show by Reid and John Moses. Grant Tinker, later President of NBC and MTM Productions, got his start as an assistant on the show.
The first "College Quiz Bowl" match was played on NBC radio October 10, 1953, when Northwestern University defeated Columbia University 135-60. 26 episodes ran the first season. Winning teams received $500 grants for their school. Good Housekeeping magazine became sponsor for the 1954-55 season, and a short third season in the autumn of 1955 finished the run. The most dominant team was the University of Minnesota, which had teams appear in 23 of the 68 broadcast matches.
Though a pilot was shot in the spring of 1955, the game didn't move to television until 1959. As "G.E. College Bowl" with General Electric as the primary sponsor, the show ran on CBS from 1959 to 1962, and moved back to NBC for 1962 through 1970. Allen Ludden was the original host, but left to do Password full time in 1962. Robert Earle was moderator for the rest of the run. The show licensed and spun-off three other academic competitions in the U.S.: Alumni Fun, which appeared on all three major TV networks in the 1960's, Bible Bowl, which has evolved into at least three separate national competitions, and High School Bowl, which is still broadcast in some local tv markets.
In 1970 modern invitational tournaments began with the Southeastern Invitational Tournament, and the circuit expanded through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. These tournaments increasingly made various modifications to the College Bowl format, and came to be known as quiz bowl. Earlier invitational tournaments, such as the "Syraquiz" at Syracuse University, had occurred in the 1950s.
The game returned to radio from 1974 to 1976, hosted by Art Fleming, and has made two more television appearances: 1984 on NBC, hosted by Pat Sajak and 1987 on Disney Channel, hosted by Dick Cavett. (Both won by the University of Minnesota) After a few years of dormancy, College Bowl returned in a non-broadcast format in the 1980s, with a contract with Association of College Unions, International (ACUI).
In the 1987 and 1988 regional tournaments, College Bowl was accused of recycling questions from previous tournaments, thereby corrupting the results (questions for tournaments need to be fresh, or certain teams will have an inherent advantage). In addition, the company claimed a copyright on the idea of quizbowl competitions, and attempted to extract a licensing fee from invitational tournaments; threatening to blacklist schools which hosted invitationals and did not pay the licensing fee. If the intent was chilling the invitational circuit, it failed, as these developments and the growing Internet community of quiz bowl players led to an explosion of teams, tournaments, and formats.
In the 1990s with the rise of the Academic Competition Federation and the National Academic Quiz Tournaments, both with their own national championships, the leverage of College Bowl Incorporated withered, and several schools "de-affiliated" from College Bowl (which has a higher participation cost).
College Bowl retains the ACUI contract, and administers the Honda Campus All-Star Challenge at historically black colleges and universities.
A British version of the televised College Bowl competition was launched as University Challenge in 1962. The programme, presented by Bamber Gascoigne, was very popular and ran until it was taken of the air in 1987. In 1994 the show was resurrected by the BBC with Jeremy Paxman as the new quiz master. The programme remains very popular in Britain.