Anderson was born in Rockford, Illinois on February 15, 1922. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1939, and began law school, but his education was interrupted by World War II. He joined the Army in 1943, and served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Field Artillery in France and Germany until the end of the war, receiving four battle stars. After the war, Anderson returned to complete his law degree, obtaining a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the University of Illinois College of Law in 1946. He was admitted to the Illinois bar the same year, and practiced law in Rockford. He attended Harvard Law School, obtaining a Master of Laws (LL.M.) in 1949. While at Harvard, he served on the faculty of Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. He then briefly returned to Rockford, Anderson to practice with the firm of Large, Reno & Zahm, before leaving to join the Foreign Service. From 1952 to 1955, he served in Berlin on the staff of the United States High Commissioner for Germany. At the end of his tour, he left the foreign service and once again returned to the practice of law in Rockford.
In 1956, Anderson was elected State's Attorney in Winnebago County, Illinois,. After serving for one term, he ran in the Republican primary for a congressional seat vacated by a long-time Congressman, and won both the primary and the general election. He served in the United States House of Representatives for ten terms, from 1961 to 1981. At first, Anderson was one of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus. On three separate occasions he introduced a constitutional amendment to attempt to "recognize the law and authority of Jesus Christ" over the United States. He was unsuccessful each time.
But by the late 1960s, Anderson's positions on social issues shifted to the left. In 1964, he was appointed to a seat on the powerful Rules Committee, and in 1969, he became Chairman of the House Republican Conference, the number three position at the time. Anderson found himself at odds with conservatives in his home district because he was not always a faithful supporter of the Republican agenda. He was very critical of the Vietnam War, and was very critical of Richard Nixon during Watergate. In 1974, he nearly lost his seat due to the strong anti-Republican tide in that year's election.
In 1978 Anderson's supporters wanted him to run for the Senate seat held by Adlai Stevenson III. But Anderson set his sights on a bigger target, the presidency. He formed an exploratory committee, but found little support, both among voters and donors. Despite this, in late April 1979 he decided to enter the Republican contest. The other nominees that year included Bon Dole, John Connally, Howard Baker, Harold Stassen, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
Anderson was able to raise enough funds to qualify for federal matching funds. He built modest state campaigns in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin. In a Republican candidates debate in Des Moines, Iowa on January 5, Anderson stood out from the other candidates. He supported President Jimmy Carter's grain embargo against the Soviet Union as a reaction to its recent invasion of Afghanistan, an unpopular position in an agricultural state. He was the only candidate to directly answer a question about which episode in their career they most regretted. He cited his vote for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. He also told the audience that lowering taxes, increasing defense spending, and balancing the budget were an impossible combination and he told the audience that Americans would have to make sacrifices today for a better tomorrow.
In the Iowa caucuses Anderson spent less than $2000, but finished with a surprising 4.3% of the vote, good for sixth place. In New Hampshire, unlike the other candidates, Anderson spoke out against the NRA and talked about licensing gun owners. He said that it was an important step in order to get cheap guns out of the hands of criminals, mental incompetents, and convicted felons. He was booed in response, but the television networks covering the event praised him for his character and principle. Anderson once again exceeded expectations, finishing fourth with just under 10% of the vote.
As the race continued, Anderson rose in the polls dramatically. In Massachusetts, he lost to George H. W. Bush by 0.3% and in Vermont he lost to Reagan by 690 votes. But in his home state of Illinois, his campaign struggled despite endorsements from the state's two largest newspapers. Reagan defeated him 48% to 37%. He finished third in Connecticut with 22% of the vote, and in Wisconsin, he finished third, winning 27% of the vote.
At the Republican Convention, the party Republican platform failed to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment or an extension of time for its ratification, much to Anderson's disappointment. He chose to run in the election as an independent. He built a new campaign team, and was able to get his name on every state ballot. He rose in the polls to as high as 26% in a Gallup poll.
Anderson made an appearance on Saturday Night Live. He received the endorsement of cartoon character Mike Doonesbury. Time Magazine wrote of his candidacy, "He has become a cult figure on campuses and with show-biz liberals. That is the strangest irony of all, because Anderson is just about the reverse of a trendy personality." In the February 1980 edition of the Atlantic Magazine, Walter Shapiro wrote: "These days, Anderson is Washington's favorite Republican. He has all the qualities that those who lie awake nights worrying over the fate of the republic want in a President. He is bright, articulate, independent, and thoughtful. Over the last decade or so, he has won a series of editorial plaudits for his courageous 1968 vote in support of open housing, his early criticisms of Richard Nixon over Watergate, his battles on behalf of campaign spending reform, and his current proposal, the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, for a 50-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax to discourage consumption. Anderson appeals to that elitist strain among Washington thinkers which asks the great unwashed of the electorate to send forth statesmen, not grasping, ambitious politicians. Because of these qualities—or in spite of them—Anderson is as close as the politics of 1980 comes to a sure thing: he will lose his race for the Republican nomination—and he will probably lose badly."
That summer Anderson went on an overseas campaign tour to show his foreign policy credentials. This took him out of the national media attention and by the third week of August he dropped to the 13–15% range in the polls. He won an important victory when the League of Women Voters created a qualification threshold of 15% for him to appear in their debates. In late August, he named Patrick Lucey, the former two-term Democratic Governor of Wisconsin and Ambassador to Mexico as his running mate. He ran under the banner of the National Unity Party. In early September, a court challenge to Federal Election Campaign Act was successful and Anderson qualified for post-election public funding.
President Jimmy Carter said that he would not appear on stage with Anderson, and sat out the debate. This hurt Carter in the polls. Reagan and Anderson had a debate in Baltimore on September 21, 1980 at which Anderson performed well, as did Reagan. Both candidates made much of Carter's absence. But in the following weeks, Anderson's poll numbers faded, dropping from 16% to 10–12% in the first half of October. When Reagan debated Carter alone, Anderson's support continued to decline. In the end, Anderson finished with just 6.6% of the vote. Much of Anderson's original support came from so-called "Rockefeller Republicans", who were more liberal than Reagan. Anderson had endorsements from such notable persons as author Gore Vidal, All in the Family creator Norman Lear, and the editors of the New Republic. According to the recently published journals of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis voted for Anderson, as did Schlesinger himself. Anderson's finish was the best showing for a third party candidate since George Wallace's 14% in 1968 and the sixth best for any such candidate in the 20th century.
After the election, Anderson became a visiting professor at a series of universities, including Stanford University, University of Southern California, Duke University, University of Illinois College of Law, Brandeis University, Bryn Mawr College, Oregon State University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Nova Southeastern University. He was Chairman of an organization called FairVote from 1996 to 2008 and continues to serve on its board.
In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, he was briefly considered as possible candidate for the Reform Party nomination but instead endorsed Ralph Nader. In January 2008, Anderson supported the candidacy of fellow Illinoisan Barack Obama. In 2012, he played a role in the creation of the Justice Party, a progressive, social-democratic party than ran former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson (no relation) as its candidate for President in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. By all accounts John Anderson is alive and well at the age of 94, and continues to live in Rockford. Below is a recent YouTube video of a three-minute interview with him in December of 2014.