The Conference on World Affairs was originally founded in 1948 by sociologist Howard Higman as a forum on international affairs. Higman says the Conference "grew like language," expanding rapidly to encompass the arts, media, science, diplomacy, human rights, technology, environment, spirituality, politics, business, medicine, and so on.

The Conference continues to attract celebrated thinkers and speakers from across the nation and globe, who volunteer their time, traveling to Boulder at their own expense. The CWA now draws an audience of more than 90,000 over five days at 200 performances, plenary speeches, and panel sessions. All events remain free and open to the public. Since the late 1950s, CWA sessions have been recorded.

In its early years, the Conference emphasized foreign relations, the United Nations, U.S. politics, the economy, atomic energy, the nuclear arms race and the Cold War. In the 1960s and 1970s, sessions on civil rights, the environment, lifestyle, culture, technological advance, art, and music took center stage, alongside international affairs, the Vietnam War, and youth activism.

Throughout its history the Conference has discouraged participants from reading prepared speeches, instead fostering insight through extemporaneous discussion. Prior to the Internet and e-mail, programs were mailed out only one week before the Conference, and many participants were not notified of their assigned panel topics or fellow panelists until they arrived in Boulder.

Following the CWA's inception, an increasingly elaborate network of colleagues and contacts fueled the annual participant roster, as friends recommended friends.

Film critic Roger Ebert, who participated for over four decades, recounts the quintessential CWA experience: "It became an honor to be invited to attend. Higman and his committee drew a veil of secrecy around the selection process. If you were invited, you got a letter which informed you that you were requested to travel to Boulder at your own expense, perform for a week on panels not of your choosing, be paid nothing for your labors, and sleep in somebody's guest room. You were not allowed to arrive late in the week or leave early."

Early in the 1970's, Samuel T. Cohen, a nuclear weapons tactics theorist and Pentagon consultant who had once recommended the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam, recalled his own CWA experience this way: "For the first time I was in the real world. I decided [the Conference] was the unreal world. The idealists held totally unrealistic views. I began to wonder if they weren't totally wrong and I wasn't totally right. I began to wonder. Here some 17 years later, the Conference hasn't changed, but I think I have. I have gone through a reappraisal of my views. I no longer believe in going out into the world and dropping bombs on Peking, Moscow. I'm still a nuclear Hawk when it comes to self-defense, but I've changed my mind about the containment of communism; I no longer believe in the domino theory. This metamorphosis came about because of the Conference."

Over the years, Conference participants have included the known and unknown: poet laureates, astronauts, academics, publishers, novelists, scientists, diplomats, political pundits, social reformers, film critics and directors, musicians, writers, and artists. The CWA has hosted personalities as diverse as Eleanor Roosevelt, Howard Nemerov, Abba Eban, Marshall McLuhan, Mayra Mannes, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, Arthur Miller, Ted Turner, Studs Turkel, Molly Ivins, Charles Krauthammer, Paul Krugman, Daniel Ellsberg, Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, and numerous others. Now, for the first time, the voices of these extraordinary speakers from the past may be heard over the web, bringing Conference on World Affairs history to life.

I was exposed there for the first time in any organized and thoughtful way to Black power, feminism, gay rights, computers, the Internet, New Age ideas, new directions in cosmology and Darwinism, and the deconstruction of deconstructionism.
  -Roger Ebert