The Lyons Award is named for Louis M. Lyons, the second curator of the Nieman Foundation. Lyons had a distinguished career as an editor and reporter before becoming a member of the first Nieman Class in 1938. He served as curator of the foundation from 1939 until he retired in 1964.
The Nieman Class of 1964 selected Vietnam correspondents as the first recipient of the Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. The Class of 1965 gave the award posthumously to broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, and the Class of 1966 honored Wilson Minor of The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
No awards were made from then until 1981, when the program was reinstituted by Curator James C. Thomson Jr. and given posthumously to Joe Alex Morris Jr. of the Los Angeles Times, who was killed while covering the Iranian Revolution.
Initially the award consisted of a plaque, to be hung in Walter Lippmann House, home of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. The plaque recorded each year's winner or winners. In addition, any individuals cited specifically were to receive smaller plaques of their own. Eventually the award carried a $1,000 honorarium.