ABC began a nightly newscast in the summer of 1948, when H. R. Baukhage and Jim Gibbons hosted News and Views. This was succeeded by After The Deadlines in 1951 and All Star News in 1952. In the fall of 1953, John Charles Daly began anchoring the then-15-minute John Charles Daly and the News. Daly, who had served as host of the CBS game show What's My Line? contemporaneously, anchored the newscast until 1960, with multiple hosts and formats succeeding him. Anchors of the program during the early 1960s included Alex Dreier, John Secondari, Fendall Winston Yerxa, Al Mann, Bill Shadel, John Cameron Swayze (formerly of NBC), Bill Laurence and Bill Sheehan. In 1962, Ron Cochran was appointed as full-time anchor, staying with the program until 1965. After Cochran left the program, Peter Jennings, a Canadian journalist who was 26 years old at the time, was named anchor of the retitled Peter Jennings with the News.
In 1967, the inexperienced Jennings left the anchor chair and was reassigned by the news division as an international correspondent for the news program. The newly renamed ABC News was hosted, in succession, by Bob Young (October 1967 to May 1968), and then by Frank Reynolds (May 1968 to December 1970), who was later joined by Howard K. Smith (May 1969 to December 1970). The program expanded from 15 to 30 minutes in January 1967, nearly 3½ years after both CBS and NBC had expanded their evening news programs to a half-hour.
Harry Reasoner, formerly of CBS News and 60 Minutes, joined ABC News in 1970 to co-anchor the relaunched ABC Evening News with Smith, beginning that December, replacing Reynolds. In 1975, Howard K. Smith was moved to a commentator role, and Reasoner briefly assumed sole-anchor responsibilities until he was paired with Barbara Walters, who became the first female network anchor when she joined the program in 1976. Ratings for the nightly news broadcast declined shortly thereafter, possibly due in part to the lack of chemistry between Reasoner and Walters. Reasoner would eventually return to CBS and 60 Minutes, while Walters became a regular on the newsmagazine 20/20.
Even in areas with three full-time network affiliates, ABC stations often opted to broadcast the news program in the 6:00 p.m./5:00 p.m. timeslot to entice viewers by presenting the day's national and international news first, thus making it more likely that they would stay tuned to the station's local newscast immediately following the program (or one half-hour afterward), instead of turning to CBS or NBC.
Starting in 1973, before the advent of closed captioning, PBS began airing an open captioned version of the ABC Evening News that was distributed to various public television stations throughout the U.S, airing mostly in late-night timeslots five hours after the original ABC broadcast. This version was produced by Boston PBS station WGBH-TV, which provided the captions and repackaged the broadcast with additional news stories – some of which were of special interest to the hearing impaired – as well as late-news developments, weather forecasts, and sports scores inserted in place of commercials. The practice continued until 1982, when real-time closed captioning was first introduced in the United States by the National Captioning Institute.
Always the perennial third in the national ratings, ABC News president Roone Arledge reformatted the program, relaunching it as World News Tonight on July 10, 1978. Reynolds, who was demoted when the network hired Reasoner, returned as lead anchor, reporting from ABC News' Washington, D.C. bureau. Max Robinson – who became the first African American network news anchor upon his appointment on the program – anchored national news from the news division's Chicago bureau. Peter Jennings, who also returned for a second stint, reported international headlines from the division's London bureau.
Occasional contributions included special reports by Walters, who was credited as anchor of the special coverage desk from New York City and worldwide, and commentary by Smith, who was easing into eventual retirement. The program's distinct and easily identifiable theme (whose four-note musical signature was eventually used on other ABC News programs) was written by Bob Israel. Ratings slowly climbed to the point where World News Tonight eventually beat both NBC Nightly News and the CBS Evening News, marking the first time ever that ABC had the most-watched network evening newscast.
In April 1983, Reynolds became ill, leaving both Jennings and Robinson to co-anchor the broadcast until his planned return; however, Reynolds would die three months later on July 20, 1983 from bone cancer. A rotation of anchors hosted the program until August 9, 1983, when Jennings became the sole anchor and senior editor of World News Tonight. The program began broadcasting from New York City on a regular basis in September 1983, at which time Bill Owen replaced Bill Rice as announcer for a year.
In September 1984, the program was renamed World News Tonight with Peter Jennings in order to reflect its sole anchor and senior editor. Robinson left ABC News in 1984, after stints of anchoring news briefs and the weekend editions of World News Tonight; he died from complications of AIDS in 1988. With Jennings as lead anchor, World News Tonight was the most-watched national newscast from February 27, 1989, to November 1, 1996, but from then on until February 2007, it placed second behind its main rival, NBC Nightly News.
In April 2005, Jennings announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and, as before, other ABC News anchors – mostly consisting of 20/20 co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas and Good Morning America co-anchor Charles Gibson – filled in for him. Jennings died of lung cancer on August 7, 2005, at his apartment in New York City, at age 67.
The August 8, 2005, edition of the program was dedicated in memory of Jennings and looked back at his four-decade career in news. His death ended the era of the so-called "Big Three" anchors: Jennings, NBC's Tom Brokaw, and CBS's Dan Rather (the latter two had retired from their positions as the respective anchors of NBC Nightly News and the CBS Evening News within the year prior to Jennings's death). During his career, Jennings had reported from every major world capital and war zone, and from all 50 U.S. states, according to the network. Jennings was known for his ability to calmly portray events as they were happening and for his coverage of many major world events.
As a tribute to its late anchor, ABC continued to introduce the broadcast as World News Tonight with Peter Jennings in the week following his death. Gibson anchored the broadcast the first part of the week; Bob Woodruff anchored the final edition of World News Tonight with Peter Jennings on August 12, 2005. That night's broadcast ended with one of Jennings's favorite pieces of music instead of the traditional theme music. Beginning on August 15, 2005, the broadcast was introduced simply as World News Tonight and it remained that way until January 2006.
The program would return to a two-anchor format, when in early December 2005, ABC News announced that Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff would be the new permanent co-anchors of World News Tonight, replacing Jennings. People in the news industry looked at the choice of Vargas and Woodruff by ABC News as the start of a new era in network television news.
The broadcast was produced live three times per day – the regular live broadcast for the Eastern and Central Time Zones, plus separate broadcasts for the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones. In addition, a live webcast, World News Now (which, incidentally, carried the same title as ABC's overnight news program), with a newsbrief and a preview of that evening's broadcast, was launched. The webcast aired live at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time on ABC News Now and ABCNews.com, and can be viewed throughout the rest of the day after 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
On January 29, 2006, Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, were injured by a road-side bomb while riding in an Iraqi military convoy. Both underwent surgery at a U.S. military hospital in Balad, Iraq (50 miles (80 km) north of Baghdad). Both men suffered head injuries in the incident, even though they were both wearing body armor and helmets. Woodruff and Vogt were then evacuated to a U.S. military hospital in Germany, before later being transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland for further treatment and released for outpatient treatment. Within a few months after Woodruff's accident, ABC News announced that Vargas was pregnant and due to give birth to her second child in late summer.
For about a month, Good Morning America co-hosts Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer had alternated co-anchoring the newscast with Vargas. During the spring of 2006, Vargas mostly anchored the broadcast alone, becoming the first de facto solo female evening news anchor. At the time, it was unknown what ABC News planned to do until Woodruff returned to the anchor chair, which appeared not to be within the near future, and when Vargas began her maternity leave. Rumors flew that Sawyer wanted to become the sole anchor of World News Tonight in order to beat Katie Couric's switch to the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News. However, New York Post columnist Cindy Adams reported that Gibson would become Woodruff's "temporary permanent replacement". Also starting in the spring of 2006, the West Coast editions of World News Tonight were scaled back because Vargas anchored the broadcast on her own at the time.
In May 2006, Vargas announced her resignation from World News Tonight. Charles Gibson was then named sole anchor of the program, effectively replacing Vargas and her injured co-anchor Woodruff. Vargas cited her doctors' recommendation to cut back her schedule considerably because of her maternity leave, and her wish to spend more time with her new baby. She has since returned to co-anchor 20/20 and ABC News specials, and has served as a substitute anchor on World News Tonight under Gibson and his successors.
Woodruff, although still recovering from his injuries, returned to World News Tonight as a correspondent on February 28, 2007.
Some media analysts found the reasons for the appointment of Gibson as anchor to be merely a cover for ABC News's real intentions to bring stability to its flagship news program, which had seen its ratings slip, and to attract some older viewers away from the CBS Evening News with interim anchor Bob Schieffer. Indeed, the advertising campaign focused on Gibson's experience, calling him "Your Trusted Source," similar to a campaign for Jennings, "Trust Is Earned," in the wake of the Killian documents controversy at CBS and Brian Williams's assumption of the NBC anchor chair.
On July 19, 2006, ABC News announced that World News Tonight would have its name officially changed to World News with Charles Gibson. The network chose to make the, albeit minor, change to remove "Tonight" from the title in order to reflect the program's expansion into the "24-hour space created by the digital world".
In the February 2007 sweeps, World News with Charles Gibson achieved the number-one spot in the Nielsen ratings among the network evening news broadcasts, overtaking NBC Nightly News, marking ABC News's first victory since the week Jennings died in August 2005.
Starting in April 2007, Gibson announced that the Monday broadcasts of World News would become expanded editions, allowing only one commercial interruption to feature extended special segments on global warming.
World News with Charles Gibson won the May 2007 sweeps period decisively over NBC Nightly News, marking Gibson's second consecutive sweeps win and widening the program's lead in the evening news race. It was the first time that World News had won consecutive sweeps periods since 1996, the year ABC News ceded the ratings crown to NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. NBC Nightly News retook first place in the November 2007 sweeps and the two programs remained in a tight race until the fall of 2008, when the NBC program established a consistent lead.
On September 2, 2009, ABC News announced that Gibson would retire from ABC News altogether on December 18, 2009, and that Sawyer would assume the anchor desk on December 21, 2009. Gibson's final broadcast ended with a video tribute that included all of the living former U.S. Presidents, former ABC anchors, actors and actresses, singers, comedians, Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog, athletes, the commander of the International Space Station, competitors Couric and Williams, and was capped off by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Long-time ABC journalist and anchorwoman Diane Sawyer began anchoring the broadcast, which amended its title to ABC World News, on December 21, 2009. On that date, the program debuted an updated set, new graphics during the introductory segment, along with a new announcer, Mike Rowe (then host of Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs), who replaced longtime announcer Bill Rice. A new set for the program debuted on August 23, 2010. Substitute anchors for the program during Sawyer's tenure when she was away or on assignment, in addition to Vargas, included David Muir (who by that point, anchored the weekend editions of World News and served as a weekday correspondent), George Stephanopoulos, Cynthia McFadden, Dan Harris, Paula Faris and Byron Pitts (with the exception of McFadden, who left ABC News in August 2014, most of these anchors/correspondents have also served as substitutes following Muir's appointment as anchor of the program).
The Sawyer tenure was marked by a shift towards more "news you can use" features, and less of a focus on hard international news. World News at the time had a 60% female viewership, the highest of the three major network evening newscasts.
On October 1, 2012, World News debuted a new logo, opening theme (which was composed by Hans Zimmer, replacing the longtime Bob Israel-composed theme), an updated set and new graphics package. The program also introduced a segment called the "Instant Index", a feature appearing as the penultimate segment of each night's broadcast focusing on news stories that are trending on social media, pop culture and entertainment-related stories and viral videos. Another feature introduced during Sawyer's tenure was "Made in America", a feature segment reported by David Muir, chronicling enterprising American companies.
On June 25, 2014, ABC News announced that Sawyer would step down as the weekday anchor of ABC World News; Saywer would be succeeded by the program's then weekend anchor, David Muir, effective September 2. On July 28, 2014, the program debuted a slightly updated set, which includes a new, larger monitor behind the anchor desk. Diane Sawyer ultimately decided to end her tenure as anchor of ABC World News nearly a week before Muir began as anchor of the weeknight editions on August 27, 2014, in order to spend time with family. By the time Sawyer left World News, the program was the #1 network evening newscast in all major key demographics and significantly closed the ratings gap with NBC Nightly News in total viewership.
David Muir became the weekday anchor and managing editor of the program on September 1, 2014, while retaining his duties as co-anchor of 20/20. However, Stephanopoulos assumed the news division's Chief Anchor position that had traditionally been assigned to the anchor of World News. Following the departure of Diane Sawyer, the title of the program was also silently rebranded back to World News Tonight for the first time since 2006. Primary substitutes are Stephanopulos, Amy Robach, Tom Llamas, and Elizabeth Vargas.
World News Tonight continues to focus on a more tabloid "infotainment" approach similar to Good Morning America, with the "Instant Index" feature of viral videos, a cable news-style graphic continuously showing the story being discussed, animation graphics, and a faster pace. World News Tonight was the most watched network evening newscast for the week of March 30, 2015. This marked the first time in seven years that the program finished at #1, beating out NBC Nightly News in all categories. Its supporters argue that World News Tonight's ratings dominance is as the result of producers figuring "that a lighter approach may be a key to appealing to younger people", as the program continues to dominate among the 25-54 demographic seen as most advertiser friendly.
ABC first attempted an early evening weekend newscast in July 1975, when it debuted a Saturday bulletin that was anchored by Ted Koppel. The broadcast, however, was not carried by many stations, and it was cancelled about a year later.
Three years later, after the flagship weeknight broadcast became World News Tonight, the program expanded to six nights a week with the premiere of World News Sunday on January 28, 1979, and to a full seven days with the restoration of a Saturday newscast (World News Saturday) on January 5, 1985, years after NBC and CBS had each launched their own weekend evening news programs. These editions added the word "Tonight" to the program title in the mid-1990s, further unifying it with the weekday editions, and in the mid-2000s, their respective names were shortened uniformly to World News Tonight to correspond with those broadcasts. However, the original names were restored on July 19, 2006, concurrent with the retitling of the weekday broadcasts, but the opening title sequence displayed the name as World News for both the Saturday and Sunday editions.
Prior to 1975, the only network newscasts that ABC stations broadcast on weekends were 15-minute late-night updates on Saturdays and Sundays, seen on many affiliates in tandem with the local stations' own 11:00/10:00 p.m. newscasts, although some stations opted to tape-delay the network updates until immediately before their regular sign-off time (rival CBS also offered a 15-minute Sunday night bulletin during the 1970s and 1980s). Because of declining affiliate interest (in part because of the proliferation of 24-hour cable news channels such as CNN) and low viewership, ABC discontinued the late-night weekend reports in September 1991.
In addition, starting in 1973, weeknight co-anchor Harry Reasoner hosted The Reasoner Report, a half-hour topical analysis of important stories (especially breaking developments in the Watergate scandal) in the vein of CBS's 60 Minutes, which Reasoner himself co-moderated at two different times. Affiliates usually carried the program on Saturday evenings in the time slots where the main newscast aired on weeknights. The program, which had affiliate clearance problems and was thus unsuccessful in terms of ratings, ended in 1975, replaced by the network's inaugural Saturday newscast (see above).
Some former anchors of the weekend news broadcasts include Sam Donaldson (Sunday edition, 1979–1988), Kathleen Sullivan (Saturday edition, 1985–1987), Charles Gibson (Saturday edition, 1987–1988), Forrest Sawyer (Sunday edition, 1989-1993), Carole Simpson (Saturday edition, 1988–1993; Sunday edition, 1993–2003), Elizabeth Vargas (Saturday edition, 1997–2003; Sunday edition, 2003-2004), Jim Avila (Saturday edition, 2006-2007), Terry Moran (Saturday edition, 2004–2005), Bob Woodruff (Sunday edition, 2004–2005), Dan Harris (Sunday edition, 2006–2011) and David Muir (Saturday edition, 2007–2011; Saturday and Sunday editions, 2011–2014). Muir, who had taken over World News Saturday in 2007, took over the Sunday broadcast in 2011, ending the practice of using separate anchors for the Saturday and Sunday editions of the program, with ABC renaming both broadcasts as ABC World News with David Muir as a result. David Muir anchored the weekend program until he took over the weekday broadcast in September 2014. The program returned to using separate anchors for the weekend broadcasts afterward, with Cecilia Vega being named anchor of the Saturday broadcast and Tom Llamas named anchor of the Sunday edition in February 2015. After Vega was named senior White House correspondent, Llamas was named sole weekend anchor in January 2017, as the practice of using separate anchors for the Saturday and Sunday editions ended once again.
Some ABC affiliates air the Sunday edition of World News Tonight at 6:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time (5:00 p.m. Central and Mountain)—one half-hour earlier than the weekday broadcasts. The weekend editions of World News Tonight may occasionally be abbreviated (with segments and stories that were originally scheduled to air being excised to account for the shortened running time) or preempted outright due to sports telecasts that overrun into its timeslot or occasionally air immediately following the program (the latter preemption situation commonly affects stations in the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones); this is particularly common during the fall season, as the Saturday broadcast is usually preempted by ABC's college football coverage and during the winter and spring, when the Sunday broadcast is sometimes delayed or preempted due to overruns of the network's NBA telecasts.
ABC News programs, including ABC World News Tonight, are shown for several hours a day on the 24-hour news network OSN News in MENA Region.
In the United Kingdom, the program was shown Tuesday through Fridays at 1:30 a.m. on BBC News, a channel that is frequently simulcast by BBC One at this time, meaning the program was broadcast on analogue terrestrial television in many parts of that country until the digital transition. The newscast was aired on a delay, in part because of the need to remove commercial advertisements, as the BBC's domestic channels operate as commercial-free services via a television license fee, replacing them with promotions for different BBC News special programs. The program was replaced by Asia Business Report and Sport Today on June 14, 2011, but later returned to the channel on August 20, 2012. It is also available on the BBC's on-demand service BBC iPlayer for 28 days after its domestic broadcast.The program was replaced again by Asia Business Report and Sport Today on March 30, 2015.
In Australia, WNT airs every morning at 10:30 a.m. AET on Sky News Australia. In New Zealand, WNT is shown at 5:10 p.m. on Sky News New Zealand.
In Hong Kong, the program was broadcast live on TVB Pearl daily at 07:30 until 08:00 HKT until May 31, 2009, when it was replaced by NBC Nightly News. In Japan, it airs on NHK BS 1 as part of the weekday morning program Ohayo Sekai (Wake Up To The World), and in clip form during the English language educational program ABC News Shower.
In Belize, Great Belize Television carries all editions of World News Tonight each weekday at 8:00 p.m. and weekends at 7:00 p.m.