Born in Keighley, West Yorkshire in 1921, he was educated at Keighley Boys' Grammar School before gaining a BA from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in 1941, and a BSc in Economics from the University of London External Programme, also in 1941.
From 1942 to 1945 during World War II, Briggs served in the Intelligence Corps and worked at the British wartime codebreaking station, Bletchley Park. He was a member of "the Watch" in Hut 6, the section deciphering Enigma machine messages from the German Army and Air Force.
After the War, he was elected a Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford (1945-55) and was subsequently appointed University Reader in Recent Social and Economic History (1950-55). He was Faculty Fellow of Nuffield College 1953-55 and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton Township, New Jersey 1953-54.
From 1955 until 1961 he was Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds. From 1961 until 1976 he was Professor of History at the University of Sussex, while also serving as Dean of the School of Social Studies (1961-65), Pro Vice-Chancellor (1961-67), and Vice-Chancellor (1967-76). On June 4 2008 the University of Sussex Arts A1 and A2 lecture theatres, designed by Basil Spence, were renamed in his honour.
He was Chancellor of the Open University 1978-1994 and has been an Honorary Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge since 1968, of Worcester College, Oxford since 1969, and of St Catharine's College, Cambridge since 1977. He also held a visiting appointment at the Gannett Center for Media Studies, Columbia University in the late 1980s and again at the renamed Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia in 1995-96. In 1976 he was created a life peer as Baron Briggs, of Lewes in the County of East Sussex. He has written a five-volume text on the history of broadcasting in the UK (essentially, the history of the BBC) from 1922 to 1974.
He married Susan Anne Banwell in 1955 and they have two sons and two daughters.
His son Dan has three sons: Hal, William, Arthur and One daughter Honor