Launched in 1828 by James Silk Buckingham, it was sold within a few weeks to Frederick Maurice and John Sterling, but they could not make it profitable. In 1829 Charles Wentworth Dilke became part proprietor and editor. He greatly extended the influence of the magazine. In 1846 he resigned the editorship, and assumed that of the Daily News, but contributed a series of notable articles to Athenaeum.
George Darley was a staff critic in the early years, and Gerald Massey contributed many literary reviews - mainly on poetry - during the period 1858-1868. Theodore Watts-Dunton contributed regularly as the principal critic of poetry from 1875 until 1898. Frederic George Stephens was art editor from 1851 until 1901, when he was replaced by Roger Fry because of his unfashionable hatred of Impressionism. Arthur Symons joined the staff in 1891.
In the 19th century, it received contributions from Lord Kelvin. In the early 20th century, its contributors included Max Beerbohm, Edmund Blunden, T. S. Eliot, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Aldous Huxley, Edith Sitwell, Julian Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf.
On other grounds, the magazine's place in the history of sports writing is assured. A letter from J S Cotton, reportedly printed in 1905, definitively tells of the first-ever reference to Cricket in India.