Robinson was the first active politician to be elected to the Presidency, and was the first presidential candidate who was not elected unopposed (the Opposition People's National Movement (PNM) nominated Justice Anthony Lucky as its candidate for President). President Robinson sparked controversy in his term in office when he refused to appoint certain Senators recommended by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday following the elections in 2000 and in 2001 when he appointed the Leader of the Opposition Patrick Manning to the position of Prime Minister after a tied election.
Robinson was born in Tobago in 1926 to James and Isabella Robinson. He was educated at Castara Methodist School (where his father served as head master) and Bishop's High School where he obtained a Higher School Certificate with distinction in Latin and competed for an Island Scholarship. He obtained a Bachelor of Laws degree from London University as an external student. In 1951 he left for the United Kingdom where he was called to the bar at Inner Temple and obtained a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from St. John's College, Oxford. Robinson returned to Trinidad and Tobago where he practised as a Barrister-at-Law.
Robinson married Patricia Rawlins and had two children, David and Ann-Margaret.
Robinson was a founding member of the People's National Movement and served in the parliament of the West Indies Federation between 1958 and 1960. In 1961 he was elected to the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago where he served as member of parliament for Tobago. He was the country's first Minister of Finance (from 1961 to 1967). Following the Black Power Revolution in 1970, Robinson resigned from the PNM and formed the Action Committee of Dedicated Citizens (ACDC) which joined forced with the Democratic Labour Party to contest the 1971 General Elections; Robinson and the DLP ended up boycotting the elections in protest over the use of voting machines.
After the 1971 election, the ACDC became the Democratic Action Congress which won both Tobago seats in the 1976 General Elections. As leader as the DAC, Robinson worked for internal self-government for Tobago, culminating in the passage of the Tobago House of Assembly Act in 1980. Robinson resigned from Parliament to contest the Tobago House of Assembly elections, and became the Chairman of the Assembly following victory by the DLP. He had also proposed the idea of the International Court.
In 1981 Robinson allied with the United Labour Front (ULF), under the leadership of Basdeo Panday, and the Tapia House Movement, under the leadership of Lloyd Best, to form the National Alliance for Reconstruction. It entered into an alliance with the Organisation for National Reconstruction, under the leadership of Karl Hudson-Phillips, to successfully fight the Trinidad and Tobago local elections, 1983. Building on this victory the four parties combined to form the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR).
ANR Robinson went on to become Prime Minister through the National Alliance For Reconstruction. However, shortly after assuming the Prime Ministership. He dismissed Mr. Basdeo Panday, Mr. John Humphrey, and Mr Kelvin Ramnath from Cabinet. However, Robinson subsequently lost the 1991 elections. He rejoined the UNC Administration as a coalition member representating the NAR. Mr Panday later offered to nominate him to become the next Head of State, i.e. the President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
During the 1990 coup d'état attempt by the Jamaat al Muslimeen, Robinson and much of his cabinet were held hostage for six days by gunmen under the leadership of Yasin Abu Bakr. When instructed to order the army to stop firing on the Red House, where they were held hostage, Robinson instead instructed them to "attack with full force," an action which led to him getting beaten by his captors. He was also shot in his leg.
Robinson suffered from a number of ailments including a stroke and prostate complications and was hospitalised at the St Clair Medical Hospital after he complained of feeling unwell. Following an illness of several months, he died at St Clair Medical Centre at about 6:00 am on 9 April 2014. The death was confirmed by National Security Minister Gary Griffith, who added that a state funeral was being planned. In reaction, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said that he was "one of our nation's outstanding sons...but the legacy he leaves behind shall surely live on to inspire today's and tomorrow's generations."
In May 2011 for his great service to this country, the airport in Tobago was renamed the A. N. R. Robinson International Airport, replacing the name "Crown Point International Airport".
In November 2011, A. N. R. Robinson was the recipient of Tobago's highest award, the Tobago Medal of Honour.
During the investiture of President Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin as a titled Yoruba chieftain on 20 December 2008, the reigning Ooni of Ile-Ife, Nigeria, Olubuse II, referred to President Robinson and his wife as previous recipients of the same royal honour.