The first editor was the Morning Chronicle's ex-editor John Douglas Cook (1808?–1868), and many of the earlier contributors had worked on the Chronicle. Cook was a Scotsman who had lived in India: he had a house in Tintagel, Cornwall, and is buried there. A stained-glass window in the parish church commemorates him. The political stance of the Saturday Review was Peelite liberal Conservatism. The paper, benefiting from the recent repeal of the Stamp Act, aimed to combat the political influence of The Times. The first issue appeared on 3 November 1855.
Frank Harris was editor from 1894 to 1898.
Contributors included Dorothy Richardson, Lady Emilia Dilke, Anthony Trollope., H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Eneas Sweetland Dallas, Max Beerbohm, Walter Bagehot, James Fitzjames Stephen, Charles Kingsley, Max Müller, Guy Thorne, George Birkbeck Hill, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oscar Wilde and future Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.
In the 1890s, the magazine published several articles that expressed an anti-German sentiment, summed up in the quote Germania est delenda (Germany needs to be destroyed) which was modeled after Cato's "Carthago delenda est" (Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam).