The series began in 1915, when Edward O'Brien edited his selection of the previous year's stories. This first edition was serialized in a magazine; however, it caught the attention of the publishing company Small, Maynard and Company, which published subsequent editions until 1926, when the title was transferred to Dodd, Mead and Company.
The time appeared to be a propitious one for such a collection. The most popular magazines of the day featured short fiction prominently and frequently; the best authors were well-known and well-paid. More importantly, there was a nascent movement toward higher standards and greater experimentation among certain American writers. O'Brien capitalized on this moment. He was deeply and vocally skeptical of the value of commercial short fiction, which tended to the formulaic and sentimental; he insisted, in introduction after introduction, on the need for a consciously literary development of the short story. He used his selections to reinforce this call. Over the years of his editorship, he drew attention to two generations of American authors, from Sherwood Anderson and Edna Ferber to Richard Wright and Irwin Shaw. Perhaps the most significant instance of O'Brien's instincts involves Ernest Hemingway; O'Brien published that author's "My Old Man" when it had not even been published yet, and was, moreover, instrumental in finding an American publisher for In Our Time. O'Brien was known to work indefatigably: he claimed to read around 8,000 stories a year, and his editions contained lengthy tabulations of stories and magazines, ranked on a scale of three stars (representing O'Brien's notion of their "literary permanence.")
Though the series attained a degree of fame and popularity, it was never universally accepted. Fans of the period's popular fiction often found his selections precious or willfully obscure. On the other hand, many critics who accepted "literary" fiction objected to O'Brien's occasionally strident and pedantic tone. After his death, for instance, The New Yorker compared him to the recently-deceased editor of the Social Register, suggesting that they shared a form of snobbery.
O'Brien died of a heart attack in London in 1941. He was replaced as editor of the series by Martha Foley, founder and former editor of Story Magazine. O'Brien, who had once called Story one of the most important events in literary history since the publication of Lyrical Ballads, presumably would have approved the choice. Foley edited the publication, at first alone and then with the assistance of her son, David Burnett, until 1977. These years witnessed both the ascendancy and eclipse of the type of short story favored by O'Brien: writers as diverse as John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, and Joyce Carol Oates offered sharply observed, generally realistic stories that eschewed trite conventions. At the same time, Foley evinced some degree of awareness of the new currents in fiction. Donald Barthelme, for instance, was chosen for The School in 1976. Foley also attended to the rise of so-called minority literature, dedicating the 1975 volume to Leslie Marmon Silko, although it has been argued that the series was less perceptive in this area than it might have been.
After Foley's death, the publisher--by that time, Houghton Mifflin--elected to take the series in a new direction. Under the guidance of a series editor (Shannon Ravenel 1978-1990, Katrina Kenison 1991-2006, Heidi Pitlor 2007- ), a different writer of reputation would select the contents and introduce the volume each year. The editor would choose the best twenty stories from 120 stories recommended by the series editor. This format has been followed since, although the guest editor has occasionally gone beyond what the series editor recommended (e.g., John Gardner in 1982).
In 2002, Houghton-Mifflin made the series part of its broader Best American series.
Guest editors of the BASS anthology from 1978 to 1989:
Guest editors of the BASS anthology from 1990 to 1999:
Guest editors of the BASS anthology since 2000: