The National Newspaper Awards were established in 1949 by the Toronto Press Club with the financial and moral support of the late George C. McCullagh, former publisher of the Globe and Mail. The press club administered the awards until 1989 when an independent 20-person Board of Governors was created to oversee the awards program.

The National Newspaper Awards is the trade name of the Canadian Daily Newspaper Awards Programme Administration Corporation, a not-for-profit body which governs the awards program. The program is run from the offices of Newspapers Canada (formerly the Canadian Newspaper Association) and is overseen by part-time consultants.

When first established, there were six awards: Spot News Reporting, Spot News Photo, Feature Writing (now Long Feature), Editorial Writing, Editorial Cartooning and Staff Corresponding (now International). The program was expanded to seven in 1950 with the addition of Feature Photo. Sports Writing (now Sports) was added in 1957 and that total of eight held until Critical Writing (now Arts and Entertainment) and Enterprise Reporting (now Investigations) were added in 1972.

Columns was added in 1980, Business in 1987, Sports Photo in 1988, Layout and Design (now Presentation/Design) and Special Project (now Project of the Year) in 1989, and Local Reporting in 1997.

In 2002, four new categories — Beat Reporting, Short Feature, Explanatory Work and Politics — brought the number to 20 categories.

In 2007, News Feature Photo was added. In 2008, Multimedia Feature brought the total to 22.

In 2015, the Multimedia category was eliminated.

In 2017, Photo Essay/Portfolio was added and News Feature Photo was eliminated. In 2019, Breaking News Photo and General News Photo were added, and Photo Essay/Portfolio and News Photo were eliminated.

A Journalist of the Year, selected from among category winners submitted by one or two entrants, has been chosen since 2014.