The show's chief purpose was to assist law enforcement in the apprehension of fugitives wanted for major felonies (such as murder, rape, child molestation, white collar crime, armed robbery, gang violence and terrorism). Numerous fugitives profiled on the show are currently on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, and AMW has a separate "Dirty Dozen" list on its web site outlining twelve notorious criminals still at large (some of whom are on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list). On May 2, 2008, the program's web site announced its 1,000th capture; to date, over 1,100 fugitives have been captured as a direct result of tips offered to the show's toll-free and anonymous tipline. Dramatic re-creations of the crimes committed are an important part of the show's arsenal, and the show itself works closely with law enforcement agencies worldwide to help catch fugitives.
The concept for America's Most Wanted was adapted from the 1960s German show Aktenzeichen XY... ungelöst (File Number XY... Unsolved) and the 1984 British show Crimewatch. AMW's first episode aired in February 1988, and within four days of the broadcast, one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives was captured as a direct result of a tip phoned in to the show; this capture helped to sell the show's premise of "Watch TV, Catch Criminals" to skeptical law enforcement officials.
After the pilot's premiere, Fox eventually hired John Walsh to host the program. Walsh became a public figure after his 6-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered in 1981; Walsh and others had successfully persuaded Congress to create the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Walsh has been the host of the show ever since, and has sometimes appeared at the arrests of high-profile fugitives who have been captured thanks to the program.
In the fall of 1996, Fox cancelled the show; this would prove to be a short cancellation. Low ratings of the shows that replaced it — combined with a massive effort from fans, numerous law enforcement and government officials, and the governors of 37 states — successfully persuaded Fox to uncancel the show just six weeks later. The program was rechristened America's Most Wanted: America Fights Back upon its return, and the program resumed its regular Saturday night timeslot, paired with reality show COPS (1989); the two-hour COPS and AMW block was the longest unchanged primetime schedule in the history of American television.
Fox announced the cancellation of AMW again in 2011; instead of continuing the show as a weekly program — citing rising unprofitability due to high production costs as the chief culprit behind the decision — Fox replaced it in the following fall with repeats of other Fox shows such as Family Guy and The Cleveland Show, but still presented two-hour AMW specials every quarter up until April 2012. Lifetime ended up being the show's savior, with new weekly episodes appearing on the cable channel in the fall of 2012, but they too eventually cancelled the program and dropped it from itself schedule altogether.
Later in 2013, Lifetime aired a one-shot special called John Walsh Investigates. On July 13, 2014, John Walsh returned to television on a regular basis again with an all-new series on CNN entitled The Hunt with John Walsh. The Hunt follows in the footsteps of AMW in giving criminals unwanted exposure to the public, though it does differ significantly from its predessessor; the series has a much slower pace to it and is presented in a documentary style, with each episode dedicating the entire hour to just one criminal profile (two at the most in some episodes). Like AMW, The Hunt too has a toll-free hotline where viewers can leave tips regarding the whereabouts of the criminals featured, and one can still remain anonymous if they wish to.
In January 2020, Fox (who retained ownership of the America's Most Wanted intellectual property after its former parent's merger with Disney) announced plans to revive the series, with a new host and a global reach versus the original series. A year later, it was announced that Elizabeth Vargas, formerly of ABC News, hosts the new revival which premiered on March 15, 2021.
Tropes featured include:
- Catchphrase: "Remember, you can make a difference." Said by John Walsh as a Signing-Off Catchphrase. He was being quite literal, since the show relied on people calling in with tips about criminals to help catch them.
- Crime Reconstruction: Most of the big crimes are shown on-screen, though it's a dramatic re-enactment done by actors. This was invoked by the show, as they wanted viewers to get riled up enough to call in to help catch the real-life bad guys.
- Dare to Be Badass: The show encouraged people to call in to an anonymous tip-line. The Signing-Off Catchphrase "Remember, you can make a difference" was literal in this regard.
- Pater Familicide: John List, instead of admitting to his family that he lost his job and that they were in dire straits financially, murdered them. He went into hiding under an alias, remarried and stayed on the run until 1989, when AMW ran a special on him. The special featured an aged bust of List that looked uncannily like the real deal, down to the glasses, by the late forensic sculptor Frank Bender, who'd studied personality profiles and pictures of List's aged parents.
- Phone Number Jingle:
- Not really a jingle, but most anyone can recall 1-800-CRIME-TV as the show's call-in tip number. From 1988 to 1993 "TV" was the last two digits of the year, until enterprising people grabbed most of the numbers corresponding to the following years (also, it made more sense to keep the same number no matter the year rather than force tippers to remember yet another new number at the turn of the new year).
- In the 2021 reboot the number is 1-833-AMW-TIPS.
- Point of Divergence: A real-life version of it. Because one man (Ottis Toole) killed Adam Walsh, his father John Walsh would go onto host a show that would lead to the capture of more than twelve hundred criminals and recover more than sixty missing persons.
- Pop-Star Composer: The original theme was composed by The Other Two, the husband and wife team of Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris of New Order.
- True Crime: The show is about real criminals and crime. The whole point of the show was to employ the viewers watching it to call into an anonymous hotline in order to locate the criminals so the police can arrest them.
- Very Special Episode: The two-hour one after 9/11, followed by another featuring 22 most-wanted al-Qaeda operatives.