The series originated on radio in the 1940s as Theatre Guild on the Air. Organized in 1919 to improve the quality of American theater, the Theatre Guild first experimented with radio productions in Theatre Guild Dramas, a CBS series which ran from December 6, 1943, to February 29, 1944. Actress-playwright Armina Marshall, a co-administrator of the Theatre Guild, headed the Guild's newly created Radio Department, and in 1945, Theatre Guild on the Air embarked on its ambitious plan to bring Broadway theater to radio with leading actors in major productions. It premiered September 9, 1945, on ABC with Burgess Meredith, Henry Daniell and Cecil Humphreys in Wings Over Europe, a play by Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne which the Theatre Guild had staged on Broadway in 1928-29. Within a year the series drew some 10 to 12 million listeners each week. Presenting both classic and contemporary plays, the program was broadcast for eight years before it became a television series. Playwrights adapted to radio ranged from Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde to Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, casting numerous Broadway and Hollywood stars, including Ingrid Bergman, Ronald Colman, Bette Davis, Rex Harrison, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Deborah Kerr, Sam Levene, Agnes Moorehead, Basil Rathbone and Mary Sinclair. Even John Gielgud was heard, in his famous role of Hamlet, in an expanded 90-minute broadcast with Dorothy McGuire as Ophelia. Fredric March was also heard in his only performance as Cyrano de Bergerac, a role he played neither onstage or onscreen. The series even featured a rarity - the only radio broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's flop musical, Allegro. The radio series was broadcast until June 7, 1953, when the United States Steel Corporation decided to move its show to television.
Rod Serling was not regarded as a controversial scriptwriter until he contributed to The United States Steel Hour, as he recalled in his collection Patterns :
In the television seasons of 1952 and 1953, almost every television play I sold to the major networks was "non-controversial". This is to say that in terms of their themes they were socially inoffensive, and dealt with no current human problem in which battle lines might be drawn. After the production of Patterns, when my things were considerably easier to sell, in a mad and impetuous moment I had the temerity to tackle a theme that was definitely two-sided in its implications. I think this story is worth repeating. The script was called Noon on Doomsday. It was produced by the Theatre Guild on The United States Steel Hour in April 1956. The play, in its original form, followed very closely the Till case in Mississippi, where a young Negro boy was kidnapped and killed by two white men who went to trial and were exonerated on both counts. The righteous and continuing wrath of the Northern press opened no eyes and touched no consciences in the little town in Mississippi where the two men were tried. It was like a cold wind that made them huddle together for protection against an outside force which they could equate with an adversary. It struck me at the time that the entire trial and its aftermath was simply "They’re bastards, but they’re our bastards." So I wrote a play in which my antagonist was not just a killer but a regional idea. It was the story of a little town banding together to protect its own against outside condemnation. At no point in the conception of my story was there a black-white issue. The victim was an old Jew who ran a pawnshop. The killer was a neurotic malcontent who lashed out at something or someone who might be materially and physically the scapegoat for his own unhappy, purposeless, miserable existence. Philosophically I felt that I was on sound ground. I felt that I was dealing with a sociological phenomenon—the need of human beings to have a scapegoat to rationalize their own shortcomings. Noon on Doomsday finally went on the air several months later, but in a welter of publicity that came from some 15,000 letters and wires from White Citizens' Councils and the like protesting the production of the play. In news stories, the play had been erroneously described as "The story of the Till case". At one point earlier, during an interview on the Coast, I told a reporter from one of the news services the story of Noon on Doomsday. He said, "Sounds like the Till case." I shrugged it off, answering, "If the shoe fits..." This is all it took. From that moment on Noon on Doomsday was the dramatization of the Till case. And no matter how the Theatre Guild or the agency representing U.S. Steel denied it, the impression persisted. The offices of the Theatre Guild, on West 53rd Street in New York City, took on all the aspects of a football field ten seconds after the final whistle blew.
The series won Emmys in 1954 for Best Dramatic Program and Best New Program. The following year it won an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series, and Alex Segal was nominated for Best Direction. It received eight Emmy nominations in 1956, then one nomination for the years 1957, 1959, and 1961; in 1962 the episode was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.