Founded on 17 October 1854 by the mercantile firm of Francis Cook & Co., the Age was sold on 31 December of that year to a co-operative that included the journalist Ebenezer Syme, a former employee of the Argus. Ebenezer Syme became sole editor and proprietor in June 1856, to be joined by his brother David, a road contractor, the following September. David was disinclined to take a prominent part in running the newspaper, but Ebenezer's retirement in 1857, followed by his death in 1860, forced him into a position that he might not otherwise have chosen. He remained in partnership with Ebenezer's widow and, later, her son Joseph, and it was not until 1891 that he became sole proprietor. However, his determination to make the Age a powerful force in Victoria is evident from the 1860s onwards. Ebenezer's politics had been radical; David was more conservative, though outspoken on issues he believed important, including a fairer land policy, trade protection and a more democratic method of government. He was in a position to influence both political decisions and the rise and fall of leading politicians. This earned him the name of 'the kingmaker'; it also gave rise to criticism from holders of opposing beliefs, at times making him a controversial figure. The Age expanded its activities through ventures such as its town and country weekly, the Melbourne Leader (1856, later the Leader), which absorbed the Melbourne Weekly Age (1855, later the Weekly Age) in 1868. The Leader, which was able to continue until 1957, competed with the Australasian (1864-1946), published by the Argus, and the Weekly Times (1869, still in print) published by the Herald. The Age was also in competition with the parent newspapers. Circulation figures demonstrate the ascendancy of the Sun News-Pictorial (founded by the Herald in 1922, now in combination as the Herald Sun) as well as the improved position of the Age following the closure of the Argus in 1957.
The popularity of the Sun News-Pictorial depended a good deal on the fact that it was easy to read and printed in tabloid form. The Age had built up an advertising base that attracted purchasers, though not necessarily readers. If it was to be a quality newspaper that could take the place of the Argus, it needed to achieve a wider, middle-class appeal. Members of the Syme family had continued their association with the paper after David Syme's death in 1908. Ranald Macdonald, his great-grandson, became managing director in 1964, retaining this position until he decided to sell the paper to the Fairfax group in 1983. Macdonald's appointment of Graham Perkin as editor in 1966 allowed the development of the determined investigative journalism that made the Age once more a powerful social and political force, as well as earning it strong criticism from those whose activities it exposed.
Following Perkin's death in 1975, various editors have endeavoured to maintain circulation by engaging new columnists and diversifying the content of the Age into specialised sections and magazines. By 1995, the circulation had risen to 191 150, an unsatisfactory figure that led to vigorous discounting for subscriptions, resulting in a temporary increase. Like all modern newspapers, the Age is threatened by the convenience as well as the immediacy of television news and features. Its movement into multimedia in the form of online news and advertisements is a further diversification that proves its proprietors' awareness of the need for continued change and expansion.