NBC News Overnight was the brainchild of former NBC News executive Reuven Frank, who conceived the show as inexpensive overnight programming after Late Night with David Letterman (in an era where infomercials were not as prevalent as the 1990's and 2000's). Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns originally anchored the broadcast. Bill Schechner replaced Dobyns in January 1983. The duPont Columbia awards cited NBC News Overnight as "possibly the best written and most intelligent news program ever."

NBC News Overnight was deemed by many people to be one of the smartest television news shows. Appealing to an eclectic audience of college students, nursing mothers, and late shift workers, the show broke the conventional "lowest common denominator" style of most news programs and injected humor into an otherwise boring medium, while providing news analysis unseen on the major networks.

During the show's early months the anchors were known for signing off in a humorous fashion. For example, during one installment Dobyns was given a very long, complex word to say and he stumbled over it; at the end of that broadcast the anchor took a moment to praise his writing staff, only to light-heartedly threaten to "take it all back" if they ever included such a word in his scripts again.

NBC News Overnight was the inspiration for many news shows. From World News Now to Countdown with Keith Olbermann, many have attempted to imitate Overnight's signature style of combining hard news features with incisive commentary and light hearted stories