William Shirer, the son of a lawyer, was born in Chicago in 1904. When he was a child his father died and the family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He had to deliver newspapers and sell eggs to help the family finances. After leaving school he worked on the local newspaper.
In 1925 Shirer toured Europe and while in Paris found work with the Chicago Tribune. He started on the copy desk but after learning French, German, Italian and Spanish became a foreign correspondent. In 1933 Shirer married a Viennese photographer and the following year moved to Berlin to work for Universal Service.
The historian, Sally J. Taylor, has pointed out: "On the surface, he seemed a mild-mannered, ineffectual type who wore thick spectacles and puffed away blandly on his pipe, giving an appearance completely at odds with his complicated temperament and awesome intelligence. By the time he was thirty, he had worked his way up to the position of chief of the Central European bureau of the Chicago Tribune. In the following few years, he would report from practically every major capital on the Continent, as well as locations as far flung as India and Afghanistan. Quite simply, Bill Shirer knew everybody in the newspaper business in Europe."
Edward Murrow recruited Shirer to work for Columbia Broadcasting Service in 1937. As its Berlin representative, Shirer provided a regular commentary of the developments in Nazi Germany. However, the authorities kept a close watch on Shirer and most of his broadcasts were censored. It eventually became impossible for Shirer to report accurately on the situation in Germany and he left the country in December, 1940.
Shirer's book, Berlin Diary: 1933-41, was published in 1941. Other books by Shirer on Nazi Germany include End of a Berlin Diary (1947), The Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany (1959) and This Is Berlin: Reporting from Nazi Germany (1999).
William Shirer died in Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts, in 1993.