Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest and most prestigious liberal arts honorary society in the United States. The organization was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The Alpha chapter in the State of New Jersey was established at Rutgers College in 1869.

On December 5, 1776, a group of young men, students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, met in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern and formed the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which they dedicated to high moral and intellectual purposes. New England branches of the Society were established at Yale in 1780 and at Harvard in 1781, which ensured the perpetuation and propagation of the society when the parent chapter became inactive. During the following half century four more chapters were founded: at Dartmouth in 1787, Union in 1817, Bowdoin in 1825, and Brown in 1830. Then, after a pause of fifteen years, a slightly more rapid expansion began in 1845. At the end of the next half century of growth, twenty-five chapters had been founded. In 1875 the Society extended the privilege of membership to women.

The need of a closer unity and greater uniformity of practices led, in 1883, to the organization of the present national body, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; its offices are located in Washington, D.C. At present, there are 255 chapters. The 150th anniversary, in 1926, became the occasion for raising an endowment fund and for exploring ways to encouraging scholarship in the educational institutions of the country. More recently the Society has joined in the defense of the freedom of teaching and inquiry and of the liberal ideal in education.

In 1877, the first Phi Beta Kappa graduate association was founded in New York City by Elihu Root, distinguished lawyer and statesman, who was joined by other Phi Beta Kappa members from the region. There are now approximately fifty associations in major population centers throughout the country that offer members the opportunity to continue an active affiliation with Phi Beta Kappa after graduation. More information appears on the Phi Beta Kappa national website.

The Rutgers Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was organized on February 22, 1869, by Charter granted by the Alpha Chapter of New York at Union College. The Rutgers College Chapter is the Alpha Chapter in the State of New Jersey and was the twentieth Chapter to be established in the Nation. Upon the graduation in 1922 of the first class in the New Jersey College for Women, a section was instituted in that division of the university; that section resided in Douglass College until its merging with the Rutgers Chapter in 2011. In 1958, the National Council authorized the establishment of the Newark College Section of the Alpha Chapter, which was installed on December 5 of that year. In the early 1980s, at the time of the reorganization of Rutgers/New Brunswick, students at Livingston College, University College, and Cook College became eligible for membership in the Rutgers Chapter.

The original organization at William and Mary was a secret society, and the oath transmitted to the first six Northern branches contained a promise to "preserve inviolate the secrets of the same." As a result of the anti-Masonic agitation of the 1830s, most of the branches followed the lead of Alpha of Massachusetts and repealed the injunction of secrecy. They retained, however, the model or key with its symbolic engraving. The interpretation of these symbols and other "signs" of the Society has continued to constitute a part of the Form of Initiation.

The "signs" of the Society which tradition has preserved are two. When members met, they greeted each other by drawing the backs of the index and middle fingers of the right hand across the lips from left to right: thus, apparently, affirming that their lips were sealed. They followed this sign with a handshake, one of the traditional forms of which is revealed to new members at the end of the ceremony of initiation.