Born in Schenectady, New York, Garroway was 14 when he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he attended University City High School and Washington University. He began his broadcasting career modestly, starting as an NBC page in 1938, and then graduating from NBC's school for announcers 23rd in a class of 24. Even so, he landed a job at influential Pittsburgh radio station KDKA in 1939. He roamed the region, filing a number of memorable reports from a hot-air balloon, from a U.S. Navy submarine in the Ohio River, and from deep inside a coal mine. Those early reports earned Garroway a reputation for finding a good story, even if it took him to unusual places.
His shows reflected his relaxed, informal style. In 1960 New York Times reviewer Richard F. Shepard wrote, "He does not crash into the home with the false jollity and thunderous witticisms of a backslapper. He is pleasant, serious, scholarly looking and not obtrusively convivial." He was known for his signoff, saying "Peace" with an upraised palm.
Along with Arthur Godfrey, Arlene Francis and Jack Paar, Garroway was one of the pioneers of television talk. Television commentator Steven D. Stark traces the origins of the style to Chicago. Garroway, Studs Terkel and Hugh Downs all hosted relaxed, garrulous, extemporaneous shows in that city in the early 1950s. Earlier radio and television voices spoke with an authoritative "announcer's" intonation, resembling public oration, often dropping about a musical fifth on the last word of a sentence. Garroway was one of the broadcasters who introduced conversational style and tone to television, beginning some broadcasts as though the viewer were sitting in the studio with him, as in this November 20, 1957, introduction for the Today show: "And how are you about the world today? Let's see what kind of shape it's in; there is a glimmer of hope."
Legendary, pioneering NBC President Sylvester "Pat" Weaver picked Garroway to host his new morning news-and-entertainment experiment, the Today show, in 1951. Garroway soon was joined by news editor Jim Fleming and announcer Jack Lescoulie as television's first loose "family" of the airwaves when the show debuted on Monday, January 14, 1952. Though initially panned by critics, Garroway's style attracted a large audience that enjoyed his easygoing presence early in the morning. His familiar "co-host," a chimpanzee with the puckish name of J. Fred Muggs, didn't hurt his genial manner, but his concurrent seriousness in dealing with news stories and ability to clearly explain abstract concepts earned him the nickname "The Communicator," and eventually won praise from critics and viewers alike. At the same time he did Today, Garroway also hosted a Friday night variety series, The Dave Garroway Show, from October 2, 1953 to June 25, 1954, and on October 16, 1955, he began hosting NBC's Sunday afternoon live documentary Wide Wide World, continuing with that series until June 8, 1958. Garroway had a vast curiosity that led Today wherever his ideas took it--to Paris in 1959 and Rome in 1960; to car shows and technology expos; to plays and movies; and even on board an Air Force B-52 for a practice bombing run--in short, everywhere in the world then accessible to television. When the show couldn't go outside to the world, the world was brought into the studio, evidenced by the parade of politicians, writers, artists, scientists, economists, musicians and many more who visited Garroway and company in the RCA Exhibition Hall, Todays then-home on West 49th Street in Manhattan.
But Garroway's easygoing camera presence masked a man fighting inner demons from several angles. He reportedly developed an addiction to a concoction from his Chicago days, called "The Doctor," composed of vitamin B-12 and codeine; it was said to have begun affecting his mental acuity and his temper. Disagreements with staff members became more frequent, and some days Garroway would disappear in the middle of the show, leaving Lescoulie to finish the live program. Far worse, however, was the April 1961 suicide of his wife, Pamela, plunging Garroway further into depression and mental instability. Eventually, these troubles affected his on-camera performance. A few weeks later, Garroway lay down in the Today show studio, refusing to rise until NBC gave in to his contract demands. The network called his bluff and on June 16, 1961 fired television's "Communicator" from the morning genre he helped pioneer.
Garroway appeared sporadically on other television programs without achieving anywhere near the success and recognition levels he enjoyed on Today. The most viewers saw of him the rest of the 1960s and 1970s was whenever he re-emerged for Today anniversaries. His final such appearance was the 30th anniversary show, January 14, 1982.
He was very interested in astronomy, and during a tour of Russian telescopes, he met his second wife, astronomer Sarah Lee Lippincott. In his final years, he attended astronomy symposia at Swarthmore College and spent time at Sproul Observatory.
Garroway was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Swarthmore, Pennsylvania home July 21, 1982. He had one son, David Jr., and a daughter, Paris. When he married Pamela, he adopted her son, Michael, whom he raised as his own, even after her death. Because of Garroway's dedication to the cause of mental health, his second wife Sarah helped establish the Dave Garroway Laboratory for the Study of Depression at the University of Pennsylvania. He was also honored for his contribution to television with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as the St. Louis Walk of Fame. He is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.