The earliest known inter-county match was played in 1709. Until 1889, the concept of an unofficial county championship existed whereby various claims would be made by or on behalf of a particular club as the "Champion County", an archaic term which now has the specific meaning of a claimant for the unofficial title prior to 1890. In contrast, the term "County Champions" applies in common parlance to a team that has won the official title. The most usual means of claiming the unofficial title was by popular or press acclaim. In the majority of cases, the claim or proclamation was retrospective, often by cricket writers using reverse analysis via a study of known results. The unofficial title was not proclaimed in every season up to 1889 because in many cases there were not enough matches or there was simply no clear candidate. Having already been badly hit by the Seven Years' War, county cricket ceased altogether during the Napoleonic Wars and there was a period from 1797 to 1824 during which no inter-county matches took place. The concept of the unofficial title has been utilised ad hoc and relied on sufficient interest being shown.
The official County Championship was constituted in a meeting at Lord's on 10 December 1889 which was called to enable club secretaries to determine the 1890 fixtures. While this was going on, representatives of the eight leading county clubs held a private meeting to discuss the method by which the county championship should in future be decided. The new competition began in the 1890 season and at first involved just the eight leading clubs: Gloucestershire, Kent, Lancashire, Middlesex, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Sussex and Yorkshire. Subsequently, the championship has been expanded to 18 clubs by the additions at various times of Derbyshire, Durham, Essex, Glamorgan, Hampshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
It is difficult to know when the concept of a county championship originated. While early matches were often between teams named after counties, they were not the club teams the usage would imply today. Rowland Bowen states in his history that the earliest usage of the term "County Championship" occurred in 1837 re a match between Kent and Nottingham Cricket Club which for the purposes of that match was called Nottinghamshire. That may be so re the actual terminology but closer examination of the sources does indicate a much earlier expression of the idea.
The earliest known inter-county match was in 1709 between Kent and Surrey but match results are unknown until the 1720s. The first time a source refers to the superiority of one county is in respect of a match between Edwin Stead's XI (aka Kent) and Sir William Gage's XI (aka Sussex) at Penshurst Park in August 1728. Kent won by an unknown margin and the source states that "this was the third time this summer that the Kent men have been too expert for those of Sussex". Evidently, Stead's Kent team won two games earlier in the season against Sussex teams organised by the 2nd Duke of Richmond. The clearly implication is that Kent was considered to be the champion county at that time. The following year, Gage's Sussex team "turned the scales" and defeated Kent, prompting a source to remark that "(the scale of victory) for some years past has been generally on the Kentish side". In 1730, a newspaper referred to the "Kentish champions". These statements indicate that inter-county matches had been played for many years previously and that there was keen rivalry with each team seeking ascendancy: i.e., in effect as champions or at least in terms of "bragging rights".
Inter-county cricket was popular throughout the 18th century although the best team, such as Kent in the 1740s or Hampshire in the days of the Hambledon Club, was usually acknowledged as such by being matched against an "All England" team. There were a number of contemporary allusions to the best county including some in verse, such as one by a Kent supporter celebrating a victory over Hampshire in terms of "(we shall) bring down the pride of the Hambledon Club".