Tom Lewis, in the Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, described NBC's plan for cultural programming and the origin of the NBC Symphony:
- David Sarnoff, who had first proposed the "radio music box" in 1916 so that listeners might enjoy "concerts, lectures, music, recitals," felt that the medium was failing to do this. By 1937, RCA had recovered enough from the effects of the Depression for it to make a dramatic commitment to cultural programming. Sarnoff proposed to create a radio orchestra and hire Arturo Toscanini to conduct it. On Christmas night, 1937, the NBC Symphony Orchestra gave its first performance with Toscanini in an entirely refurbished studio at NBC located in the RCA Building. "The National Broadcasting Company is an American business organization. It has employees and stockholders. It serves their interests best when it serves the public best." That Christmas night, and whenever the NBC orchestra played over the next 17 years, he was right.
Sarnoff devoted considerable effort and resources to create an orchestra of the first rank for Toscanini and NBC. Artur Rodziński, a noted orchestra builder and musical task master in his own right, was engaged to mold and train the new orchestra in anticipation of the arrival of Toscanini. It offered the highest salaries of any orchestra at the time and a 52-week contract. Prominent musicians from major orchestras around the country were recruited and the conductor Pierre Monteux was hired as well to work with the orchestra in its formative months. A new large broadcast studio was built for the orchestra at NBC's Radio City Studios in Rockefeller Center, New York, "Studio 8-H". In addition to creating prestige for the network, there has been speculation that one of the reasons NBC created the orchestra was to deflect a Congressional inquiry into broadcasting standards.
The orchestra's first broadcast concert aired on November 13, 1937 under the direction of Monteux. Toscanini conducted ten concerts that first season, making his NBC debut on December 25, 1937. In addition to weekly broadcasts on the NBC Red and Blue networks, the NBC Symphony Orchestra made many recordings for RCA Victor. Televised concerts began in March 1948 and continued until March 1952. During the summer of 1950, NBC converted Studio 8-H into a television studio (the broadcast home of NBC's late-night comedy program Saturday Night Live since 1975) and moved the broadcast concerts to Carnegie Hall, where many of the orchestra's recording sessions and special concerts had already taken place.
Leopold Stokowski served as principal conductor from 1941-1944 on a three-year contract following a dispute between Toscanini and NBC. During this time Toscanini continued to lead the orchestra in a series of public benefit concerts for war relief. He returned as Stokowski's co-conductor for the 1942-43 and 1943-44 seasons, resuming full control thereafter. Upon Toscanini's retirement in the spring of 1954, NBC officially disbanded the orchestra, much to Toscanini's distress, though it continued for several years independent of NBC, as the Symphony of the Air. Toscanini's final broadcast concert with the orchestra took place at Carnegie Hall on April 4, 1954, and he conducted the orchestra for the last time during RCA Victor recording sessions held June 3 and 5, 1954.
Some notable musicians who were members of the orchestra include violinists Samuel Antek, Henry Clifton, Felix Galimir, Josef Gingold, Daniel Guilet (concertmaster 1952-54), Harry Lookofsky, Mischa Mischakoff (concertmaster 1937-1952), Albert Pratz, David Sarser, Oscar Shumsky, Benjamin Steinberg, Herman Spielberg, Boris Koutzen and Andor Toth; violists Carlton Cooley, Milton Katims, William Primrose, and Tibor Serly; cellists Frank Miller, Leonard Rose, Harvey Shapiro, Alan Shulman,
George Koutzen and David Soyer; double bassists Homer Mensch and Oscar G. Zimmerman; flutists Carmine Coppola, Arthur Lora and Paul Renzi; clarinetists Augustin Duques, Al Gallodoro, David Weber and Alexander Williams; saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer; oboists Robert Bloom and Paolo Renzi; bassoonists Elias Carmen, Benjamin Kohon, William Polisi, Leonard Sharrow and Arthur Weisberg; French horn players Arthur Berv, Harry Berv, Jack Berv and Albert Stagliano; Harry Glantz, Bernard Baker, and Raymond Crisara trumpets and tuba player William Bell, among others.
Not all of the NBC Symphony performers were under full-time contracts to NBC. In the early 1950s, for example, only about 55 of these musicians were salaried; the rest were hired under per-service contracts (in line with Local 802 American Federation of Musicians wage scales) to bring the Orchestra's performing and recording strength up to the 85-100 seen in period photographs and video footage. Even for the salaried members, NBC Symphony duties constituted barely half of their work obligations for NBC; these musicians played in orchestras for other NBC radio and television programs, with many of the wind players also serving with the Cities Service "Band of America" conducted by Paul Lavalle.