Nigel went to the Merchant Taylors' School, Crosby, and then took a degree in English at New College, Oxford (where he was a Trevelyan Scholar). He went straight into television with Granada in Manchester and made his first TV appearances on local programmes in 1967 before moving to London as a freelance. He worked for ITN’s News at Ten as a reporter before becoming involved in a wide range of programmes for BBC Radio as reporter and producer.
In 1971, Nigel turned to presenting. He introduced the BBC World Service current affairs magazine Twenty Four Hours nearly a thousand times between 1972 and 1979. From 1973 to 1975 he was also a regular presenter of Radio 4’s arts magazine Kaleidoscope. From 1976 to 1978 he was the founder presenter of Radio 4’s newspaper review Between the Lines and, from 1984 to 1986, Stop Press.
By way of contrast he kept up the revue acting he had started at Oxford by appearing for five years in Radio 4’s topical comedy show Week Ending... and then in five series of the cult comedy The Burkiss Way. Comedy appearances have also included Harry Enfield and Chums on BBC TV. When he was 32, in 1976, Nigel became the youngest ever regular presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme and had two years of early mornings with Brian Redhead before leaving in May 1978 at the time of his marriage to Sue Bates, a marketing executive. The other reason was the increasing success of Quote... Unquote, his quiz anthology on Radio 4, then in its third series.
By 1978 it was also time for the first Quote... Unquote book. This gave rise to a whole series under various titles and devoted to aspects of the English language and especially the humour that derives from it. One of Nigel’s five graffiti collections was a No. 1 paperback bestseller in the UK.
Nigel’s reference books include the Cassell Companion to Quotations, Cassell’s Movie Quotations, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations and A Word In Your Shell-Like and Brewer's Famous Quotations.
Since 1992 Nigel has published and edited The Quote... Unquote Newsletter, a quarterly journal distributed worldwide and devoted to the origins and use of well-known quotations, phrases and sayings.
Widely-recognized as host and participant in quizzes and panel games, Rees has been chairman of TV’s Cabbages and Kings (quotations), Challenge of the South (general knowledge), Amoebas to Zebras (natural history) and First Things First (panel game) - all on ITV. For 18 years he was a regular guest in Dictionary Corner on Channel 4's Countdown. He is a recent past President of the Johnson Society (Lichfield) and was described in The Spectator (16 December 2006) as: "Britain's most popular lexicographer – the lineal successor to Eric Partridge and, like him, he makes etymology fun."