A Timeline of ‘Wheel of Fortune’s Nearly 50-Year History

Pat Sajak and Susan Stafford on Wheel of Fortune
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Wheel of Fortune special issue

Wheel of Fortune

Farewell Pat Sajak Issue

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Wheel of Fortune has been entertaining the masses since 1975. The series began without Pat Sajak and Vanna White at first, but it didn’t take too long for them to become the faces of the game.

Ahead of Sajak’s final episode of Wheel of Fortune on Friday, June 7, we’re diving into the show’s rich history.

This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s Wheel of Fortune: Farewell, Pat Sajak issue. For more inside scoop on the long-running game show and Pat’s final episode, pick up a copy of the issue available on newsstands and for order online at WheelofFortuneMag.com.

Susan Stafford and Chuck Woolery on 'Wheel of Fortune'
Everett Collection

January 6, 1975

Wheel of Fortune is born. The very first episode debuts on NBC during the day with host Chuck Woolery, letter turner Susan Stafford and announcer Charlie O’Donnell (American Bandstand). And it’s all thanks to legendary game show creator Merv Griffin, who had conceived the hit Jeopardy! 11 years earlier. Looking for the next big thing in game shows, Griffin was inspired to create Wheel by combining the children’s word game Hangman with a casino-style roulette wheel. But his original pilot version of the series, called Shopper’s Bazaar, was not picked up by the peacock network. It wasn’t until Griffin retooled the series that NBC gave him their blessing and put it on the air — and the wheel hasn’t stopped spinning since. In 2025, the iconic series will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Pat Sajak on 'Wheel of Fortune'
Sony Pictures Television

December 28, 1981

Woolery leaves the show over a contract dispute: He wanted the $500,000 per year that Peter Marshall was getting for The Hollywood Squares. New host Pat Sajak (earning $65,000 annually) is introduced. Griffin personally discovered the former disc jockey and local KNBC-TV weatherman when he caught one] of Sajak’s broadcasts and forced NBC to hire him — even going so far as to stop Wheel tapings until NBC’s execs agreed. “When you’re working in local TV in L.A., in a way you’re auditioning every night because the producers are at home, watching TV like everybody else,” Sajak told NPR in 2013. “And happily, one of those guys was Merv Griffin.”

Vanna White and Pat Sajak on Wheel of Fortune
Sony Pictures Television

December 13, 1982: Vanna's First Show!

Vanna White, a model from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, makes her Wheel of Fortune debut. Her first official episode airs on this day, nearly a year after Sajak’s start. (Fun fact: The first letter she turned onscreen was a T.) Stafford, who had departed in October, eventually left showbiz for the medical world, earning her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. And White? She became a Wheel icon.

Pat Sajak and Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune
Sony Pictures Television

September 19, 1983

The syndicated nighttime version of Wheel of Fortune premieres — this is the iteration that is still running today. Some reports credit Wheel’s successful visit to the Ohio State Fair earlier that summer as the reason more than 50 stations picked it up for syndication. At this time, Sajak and White were working on both the daytime and evening shows.

WHEEL OF FORTUNE, Pat Sajak, Vanna White,
ABC / Everett Collection

October 3, 1986

Episode No. 3,000 (of the combined daytime and nighttime versions) airs.

October 26, 1988

Wheel hits the road! The first-ever on-location episodes shoot at Radio City Music Hall in New York and air the weeks of November 14 and 21.

Bob Goen, Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune
Joey Del Valle / NBCU Photo Bank / Getty Images

January 10, 1989

Ex-NFL kicker Rolf Benirschke takes over Sajak’s role as daytime host alongside White, but it’s no touchdown. The ratings drop 25 percent with Benirschke at the helm and he only lasts six months.

May 22, 1989

When daytime ratings don’t improve, NBC announces the cancellation of Wheel of Fortune’s daytime version.
CBS picks it up a day later.

June 30, 1989

The last day the shopping segment is seen is in this daytime episode. The syndicated series dumped it in ’87 to lower player taxes and speed up the game.

July 17, 1989

New daytime host Bob Goen (Perfect Match, above with White) taking over for Benirschke, has his first official episode on CBS. Ratings still decline.

January 14, 1991

Daytime Wheel returns to NBC. The show holds several play-by-phone contests throughout the spring and summer in a last-ditch effort to improve ratings against the very popular The Price Is Right.

September 20, 1991

Wheel of Fortune’s daytime version officially ends on NBC after airing three weeks of repeats. Nighttime Wheel continues to be successful with Sajak and White.

Vanna White, Alex Trebek, and Pat Sajak on 'Wheel of Fortune'
Sony Pictures Television

1997: Alex Trebek Hosts!

February 24, 1997

Wheel reveals a new touchscreen puzzleboard. (White turns her last letter the week prior, with February 21’s final puzzle, “Pound Sign.”) Now, instead of spinning a trilon, White simply needs to touch the box and it lights up. “I’ll betcha a dollar it don’t work,” Sajak jokes as it’s introduced.

April 1, 1997

April fools! Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek surprises the audience by taking over on Wheel of Fortune, and Sajak hosts that night’s Jeopardy! On Wheel, Sajak and White are the contestants, playing for charity, while Sajak’s wife, Lesly Brown, fills in for White on the puzzleboard. But this isn’t the first time Trebek or Brown has been on Wheel — Trebek guest hosted for Sajak for a full week 16 years earlier, and Brown has helped out onscreen by showing prizes and participating in opening segments. Sajak dominates the first round, correctly guessing the phrase “Pat, I’d Like to Solve the Puzzle.”

September 13, 1997

CBS premieres the children’s spinoff Wheel 2000, co-hosted by the animated Cyber Lucy. Kids between the ages of 10 and 15 compete for points and prizes. It’s canceled by the following February. Over two decades later, in June 2023, Sony announces that another kids’ version of Wheel is in development.

September 4, 2000

A new game element is introduced — Toss-Ups — at the start of Season 18. In this twist, letters in the puzzle are revealed randomly, one at a time, and contestants are given a color-coded buzzer (yes, like Jeopardy!) to press when they think they know the answer. Toss-Ups go on to be used at different points in the game throughout the years and are also what Wheel uses as a tiebreaker.

October 22, 2001

The “W-H-E-E-L” envelopes, in use on the show since 1989, are replaced by the 24-envelope bonus wheel. A $100,000 cash prize is also introduced, raising players’ overall earnings.

March 21, 2003

The longest puzzle ever, counting punctuation, uses 47 of the board’s 52 rectangles: “She Just Won a Seventh U.S. Figure Skating Championship” (Michelle Kwan!).

September 8, 2008

The million-dollar wedge is introduced in the Season 26 premiere. On October 14, Michelle Loewenstein becomes the first player to take home over $1 million.

Jim Thornton on 'Wheel of Fortune'
Quadra Productions / Carol Kaelson

September 19, 2011

Jim Thornton (above) becomes the show’s announcer, following the death of longtime Wheel voice Charlie O’Donnell in November 2010. “I got a call from my agent that they were interested in me, and I was completely overwhelmed and so humbled,” says Thornton, who had done a few trial episodes. He also remembers one of his early days working with Sajak. “I was on the air reading a piece of copy and Pat said, ‘Hey Jim, are you wearing pants up there? You know, we never see you,’” Thornton recalls with a laugh. “He always keeps me on my toes and I like that about him a lot.”

Pat Sajak walks off set of 'Wheel of Fortune' in 2014
Wheel of Fortune

November 10, 2014

Sajak jokingly walks off the set after the two teams playing that night consecutively guess “Riding a Brown Horse” and “Riding a White Horse,” when the answer is actually “Seeing a Buddy Movie.”

April 2, 2015

Whitney Shields is the first contestant to lose $1 million dollars on the show by failing to solve the puzzle “Without a Doubt.”

Vanna White wears the same dress twice for the first time ever on 'Wheel of Fortune' in 2020
Sony Pictures Television

March 22, 2019

Guinness World Records recognizes Sajak for being the person with the longest career hosting the same game show, after 35 years and 198 days.

December 9, 2019

White fills in for Sajak as host (above) while the latter recovers from emergency surgery following a blocked intestine. (Before that, White had only ever taken on a single segment, in 1996 when Sajak had laryngitis.) At the time of her new hosting duties, White tweeted to Sajak: “I’ll fill in the blanks until you return” alongside a picture of the two of them. “Rest up and we’ll be solving puzzles in no time. (Don’t worry, your job is safe! Well, pretty safe.)”

September 23, 2020

For the first time, after over 7,000 looks, White mistakenly wears the same dress twice. Oops!

Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune
Christopher Willard via Getty Images

January 7, 2021

Celebrity Wheel of Fortune premieres on ABC with Sajak and White. The first competitors include Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones, Grey’s Anatomy star Chandra Wilson and pro skateboarder Tony Hawk.

September 12, 2022

The puzzleboard gets a massive upgrade at the start of Season 40. It now operates on one large screen using NASA’s “lidar” technology (aka the laser tech used in everything from NASA’s Mars rover to self-driving cars). It now means that White doesn’t even have to touch the board to turn a letter; her hand just hovers over the sensors. Is this the future?

Pat Sajak announces his retirement from 'Wheel of Fortune' on Twitter on June 12, 2023

June 12, 2023

Sajak announces his retirement via X (formerly known as Twitter), saying, “Well, the time has come. I’ve decided that our 41st season, which begins in September, will be my last. It’s been a wonderful ride, and I’ll have more to say in the coming months. Many thanks to you all. (If nothing else, it’ll keep the clickbait sites busy!).”

Vanna White and Pat Sajak
Carol Kaelson / Sony Pictures Television

April 5, 2024: Pat's Final Show

At the Culver City set, Sajak tapes his final installment of Wheel of Fortune after more than 40 years. The episode airs June 7. “For his last week, we have some fun look-backs on skits and silly moments,” teases executive producer Bellamie Blackstone to TV Guide Magazine. “Pat’s sense of humor has always been at the core of the tone of the show, and he’s so witty. Plus, getting to hear from Vanna and her opinion on [his departure], and finally getting to hear from Pat, I think are all really nice moments that the fans are going to enjoy.”

Vanna White on 'Wheel of Fortune'
Wheel of Fortune

Producer Randy Berke, who has been with the series since 1989, says, “Pat’s final tape day was very emotional for everyone, myself and Vanna included. I look forward to everyone’s reaction to his final goodbye to the viewing audience.”

In September, new host Ryan Seacrest will take the stage with White at the puzzleboard.