"Wheel of Fortune" was created by Merv Griffin, who based it on the game Hangman. Three contestants competed. In turn, each would spin a horizontal wheel that was marked with various dollar amounts as well as special spaces reading "Lose a Turn" and "Bankrupt." A contestant landing on a dollar amount called out a consonant; if it appeared in the puzzle, the amount spun would go into the contestant's bank after being multiplied by the amount of times that letter appeared. If it wasn't in the puzzle, the next contestant in line took a turn.
If they had at least $250, contestants could also, instead of spinning, pay $250 to buy a vowel; it often helped in solving the puzzle to have the vowels filled in.
The contestant who solved the puzzle got to "go shopping" for prizes in one of several themed showcases, spending the money in their bank on items ranging from pianos to ceramic Dalmatians, all marked at their actual retail price. They would be obligated to keep spending until they ran out of money; if they couldn't get all the way to zero, the remainder could go on a gift certificate or on account. Money on account would go into their bank if they solved another puzzle in one of the following rounds, but it would also go away if the contestant landed on "Bankrupt." (As the host's instructions at the beginning of the game went: "Try not to hit Bankrupt; if you do, you lose your cash but not your merchandise, because once you buy a prize, it's yours to keep.")
"Wheel of Fortune" premiered on NBC on January 6, 1975, at 10:30 A.M. Eastern time with Chuck Woolery hosting and Susan Stafford turning the letters on the puzzle board.
When Chuck Woolery was replaced as host by Pat Sajak as of December 28, 1981, a bonus round was added, in which the winning contestant could play for one of the higher-value prizes from the showcases (eligible items were marked with a gold star). A fairly short puzzle was revealed on the board, and the contestant could pick five consonants and a vowel to be filled in. If the contestant solved it, they won the prize they had chosen. R, S, T, L, N, and E were the usual choices; years later, the rules were changed to automatically fill in those six letters, with the contestant allowed to pick three other consonants and one other vowel.
Susan Stafford left the show in October 1982, and following a few weeks of substitutes, her permanent replacement, Vanna White, began turning the letters on December 13, 1982. In the late 1990s, when the movable letters were replaced by computer monitors, Vanna was still around, but now touched the frame around each monitor to reveal each letter.
In September 1983, a daily syndicated version was added, airing at either 7:00 or 7:30 P.M. in most markets. While the daytime version had been fairly popular, the new nighttime version soon became one of the most popular syndicated shows in the U.S.
After a couple of years, shopping for prizes was eliminated on the syndicated version, with the contestants winning cash in the main game, and cash or prizes in the bonus round. It took a couple more years until the shopping was eliminated on the daytime version.
Pat Sajak left the daytime show at the beginning of 1989 to host a late night talk show on CBS, "The Pat Sajak Show." He was replaced by former San Diego Chargers placekicker Rolf Bernischke, who stayed with "Wheel of Fortune" until its last episode on NBC, June 30, 1989.
The following Monday, the show premiered on CBS at 10:30 A.M. with host Bob Goen and a lower budget that resulted in strangely small dollar amounts on the wheel. It limped along until January 11, 1991.
It then went back to NBC, still with Goen, where it continued to limp along from January 28 to September 20, 1991.
Despite the troubles of the daytime version, the syndicated version remained strong in the ratings, as the most popular syndicated game show from the mid-1980s through the 1990s and beyond.