Founded in 1908, every U.S. president since Theodore Roosevelt has visited the club, and all since Warren Harding have been members. Most have spoken from the club's podium. Others who have appeared at the club include monarchs, prime ministers and premiers, members of Congress, Cabinet officials, ambassadors, scholars, entertainers, business leaders, and athletes.
On March 12, 1908, 32 newspapermen met at the Washington Chamber of Commerce to discuss starting a club for journalists. At the meeting they agreed to meet again on March 29 in the F Street parlor of the Willard Hotel to frame a constitution for the National Press Club. The Club founders laid down a credo which promised "to promote social enjoyment among the members, to cultivate literary taste, to encourage friendly intercourse among newspapermen and those with whom they were thrown in contact in the pursuit of their vocation, to aid members in distress and to foster the ethical standards of the profession."
With $300, the founding members moved into its first club quarters on the second floor of 1205 F Street NW. By 1909, the club had outgrown its new quarters and moved above Rhodes Tavern at the corner of 15th and F Streets. Once again the club outgrew its residence and moved to the Albee Building (formerly Riggs) at 15th and G Streets.
In 1925, National Press Club President Henry L. Sweinhart, appointed a special building committee to plan for a permanent club headquarters. A deal was negotiated with the Ebbitt Hotel, allowing the Ebbitt to move to the Albee building and allowing the National Press Club to demolish the hotel to build the National Press Building. The building included retail space and office space intended for Washington news bureaus with the club occupying the 13th and 14th floors. In order to increase their funding, the Club struck a deal with Fox to build a theater as part of the building. The National Press Building opened its doors in August 1927. The building was renovated in 1984-85, in conjunction with the development of the adjacent The Shops at National Place.
During the Great Depression, the Club struggled financially as it was beginning to be recognized as an influential group. It managed to find additional funding from wealthy individuals.
Regular weekly luncheons for speakers began in 1932 with an appearance by president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since then the Club has hosted an average of 70 luncheons each year with prominent people. Over the years Nikita Khrushchev, Soong May-ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek), Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, Charles de Gaulle, Robert Redford, Boris Yeltsin, Elizabeth Taylor, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and the Dalai Lama have all spoken at the club.
At its inception the National Press Club opened its doors only to white male journalists. In response, female journalists founded a Women's National Press Club in 1919. After the National Press Club admitted the first African-American male journalist in 1955, female journalists escalated their fight for entry. In December 1970, members of the Women's National Press Club voted to allow men into their club and renamed it the Washington Press Club. The next month, the National Press Club voted 227 to 56 to admit women. In 1985, the two clubs merged.
Speaking at the National Press Club to mark his retirement, CBS commentator Eric Sevareid called the club the "sanctum sanctorum of American journalists" and said "It's the Westminster Hall, it's Delphi, it's Mecca, the Wailing Wall for everybody in this country having anything to do with the news business; the only hallowed place I know of that's absolutely bursting with irreverence."