Born in Crosby, Lancashire, on 26 September 1944, Robinson is of Irish descent. Her father was a school teacher. Her mother, Anne Josephine (née Wilson), who was an alcoholic, was an agricultural businesswoman from Northern Ireland, where she was the manager of a market stall. When she came to England, she married into her husband's family of wholesale chicken dealers, and sold rationed rabbit after the Second World War. She inherited the family market stall in Liverpool and transformed it into one of the largest wholesale poultry dealing businesses in the North of England.
Brought up initially at the family home in Crosby, Robinson attended a private and prestigious Roman Catholic convent boarding school in Hampshire, Farnborough Hill Convent, now known as Farnborough Hill.
She was hired as a chicken gutter and saleswoman during the holidays in the family business, before taking office jobs at a law firm. The family spent their summers on holiday in France, often at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes.
On leaving school, Robinson chose journalism over training for the theatre. After working in a news agency, she arrived in London in 1967 as the first young female trainee on the Daily Mail. Robinson's mother's going-away present to her daughter was an MG sportscar and a fur coat. Robinson secured a permanent position as a result of scooping the details of the story of Brian Epstein's death from being a family friend of the Liverpool solicitor handling the legalities, offering him a ride to Euston railway station when he could not find an available taxi.
Her work became more uncomfortable for her when she met and fell in love with the deputy news editor, Charlie Wilson, and the two got married in 1968 – he subsequently had to sack her as a result of the marriage. Robinson joined The Sunday Times, and in 1970 the couple had a daughter, Emma Wilson, who is now a British radio disc jockey and has also hosted Scaredy Camp, a game show in the USA on the Nickelodeon network. In December 1978, she resigned from The Sunday Times and returned home to Crosby. She then began working for the Liverpool Echo.
Robinson returned to Fleet Street in 1980, working as columnist and Assistant Editor of the Daily Mirror from the week that the Falklands War started. She also wrote a column under the pseudonym of the "Wednesday Witch", in which she developed her vitriolic style. During her career as a newspaper journalist, she developed a flair for writing tabloid headlines.
On 14 November 1982, Robinson attended a formal dinner attended by Queen Elizabeth II, at which she noted that Diana, Princess of Wales, arrived late. Robinson asked the Mirror's Royal editor James Whitaker to investigate and, after conversations with various sources including Diana's sister Lady Sarah McCorquodale, confirmed that Diana was suffering from an eating disorder, named as anorexia in a scoop article on 19 November. As a result, Buckingham Palace Press Secretary Michael Shea rang then Mirror editor Mike Molloy to remove Robinson. Robinson was subsequently removed from the editorial rota, and was advised by Molloy to "do more television, blossom, that's what you're good at." Robinson has written weekly columns for a succession of other British newspapers, such as Today, The Sun, The Express, The Times, and The Daily Telegraph.
Robinson began appearing on BBC television in 1982, initially as an occasional panellist on Question Time and presenting her 'TV Choice' on Breakfast Time From 1986, she began sitting in for regular presenter Barry Took on television viewers' show Points of View, taking over permanently in 1988 for 11 years. In 1993, she took over the presentation and writing of the consumer affairs television programme Watchdog.
Robinson is best known in the UK for hosting the game show The Weakest Link, and in the United States its NBC primetime counterpart, Weakest Link. She originally started with an icy, mysterious appearance and persona, remaining indifferent to funny and friendly moments throughout; however, that toned down much over the years, with her often smiling and on occasion laughing, especially on the celebrity episodes. Her use of insults, caustic remarks and personal questions fiercely directed at contestants became famous. Her blunt utterance "You are the weakest link – goodbye!" became a catchphrase soon after the show started in 2000. Asked by the Duke of Edinburgh to present some Duke of Edinburgh's Awards, she agreed subject to his taking part in the Weakest Link – the Duke declined.
In 2005, she made an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, admitting she had been an unfit mother. Also in 2005, she appeared on an episode of the revived Doctor Who, entitled "Bad Wolf", voicing a futuristic android version of herself named the "Anne Droid" on a lethal version of The Weakest Link in the year 200,100. When contestants lose, the android blasts them with a disintegrator in its mouth, which really teleports them away to a Dalek fleet. Robinson hosted the BBC's outtakes programme Outtake TV until 2009. She currently hosts a satirical news-based chat show on BBC One called What's the Problem? With Anne Robinson, and the BBC's interactive quiz Test the Nation.
In 2009, Robinson returned to presenting BBC One's long-running consumer show Watchdog. She finished presenting The Weakest Link in 2012 after twelve years as the host of 1,693 shows. On 10 September 2015, it was announced that Robinson would step down from Watchdog once again, this time in order to film a new series of Britain's Spending Secrets for the channel. She had presented Watchdog for a total of 15 years.
In 2016, Robinson presented Anne Robinson's Britain for BBC One. The series consisted of three episodes each focusing on different aspects of British life. Episode one was centered in parenting, episode two on the nation's love of pets and particularly cats and dogs and the final episode focused on the nation's fixation with how they look.
In 1973, Robinson lost a custody battle for her only child, Emma, then aged two. Charles Wilson was granted sole custody, care and control of Emma, who subsequently lived with her father until she left home at 16 for boarding school. An admitted alcoholic, Robinson stopped drinking on 12 December 1978 after picking her daughter up from school and driving to a petrol station to buy a bottle of vodka.
Robinson married journalist John Penrose in 1980. On 30 September 2007, the couple announced that they were planning to divorce, citing "irreconcilable differences". In 2001, she published her autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother, in which she describes her former drinking problem. In 2001, Robinson was diagnosed with skin cancer and had surgery to treat it. She has two grandchildren.
In 2001, she was accused of being racist after describing Welsh people as "irritating and annoying" while appearing as a guest on Room 101.
The BBC received 16 complaints after Robinson asked wine connoisseur Olly Smith, who was competing on the celebrity version of The Weakest Link, to feel her breasts, after he described her as a "full-bodied, expensive red". The programme was broadcast on Saturday 5 April 2008 on BBC One. Robinson caused controversy on The Weakest Link when she made Blue Peter legend John Noakes cry after asking "What happened to Shep?" Shep had been Noakes's pet both on and off Blue Peter.
Robinson is a vocal supporter of fox hunting and, before it was banned in 2004, was a key supporter of the pro-hunt cause. The Guardian claims she has ridden with the White Horse Hunt. In an interview with Radio Times in September 2000, Robinson was asked what her first act as world leader would be, replying: "I'd lock up all the hunt saboteurs because they are destructive. They are campaigning about something of which they know nothing." In February 2002, she hosted a spin-off version of The Weakest Link in Cirencester to raise funds for the local White Horse Hunt. The event was picketed by around 100 protesters from the League Against Cruel Sports; around 70 animal rights activists returning from another demonstration joined the picket, culminating in a near riot. The event eventually went ahead after Robinson was escorted into the venue by local police.