The Ohio State University Department of Political Science was officially founded in 1909, after an unstable prehistory. The University was established as a land-grant institution in 1870, and the Board of Trustees adopted a plan the next year that included a Department of Economy and Civil Polity among its ten departments. A chair was appointed for that department in 1875, but it was abolished two years later for a combination of personality and political reasons, being replaced by a Department of Mines and Mining Engineering. A Department of History and Political Science was established in 1887 and continued for 22 years until two separate departments were created in 1909.

The Department of Political Science had only 8 department chairs during its first century. Henry R. Spencer was the founding chair in 1909, serving a remarkable 38 years until he stepped down in 1947. The next three chairs served through the 1950s and 1960s: Harvey C. Mansfield (1947-1959), E. Allen Helms (1959-1962), and Lawrence J. R. Herson (1962-1969). Randall B. Ripley was chair for the next 22 years (1969-1991), a lengthy period by modern standards, though far shorter than Spencer's reign. Paul Allen Beck (1991-2004) served for 13 years, after which he became the third ex-chair in a row to serve as dean of the college. The next two chairs, Kathleen McGraw (2004-2005) and Herbert F. Weisberg (2005-2011), continued the unbroken string of American Politics specialists to chair the department. In 2011 Richard K. Herrmann became the first International Relations scholar to serve as department chair.

The early years saw a number of distinguished faculty, including five presidents of the American Political Science Association: Walter J. Shepard, Francis W. Coker, Clarence A. Dykstra, Henry R. Spencer, and Peter H. Odegard. Other noted political scientists who taught at OSU before World War II include James K. Pollock, Jr. (who later served as the long-time chair of the Michigan department) and the political theorist George H. Sabine. More recent association presidents include, Chadwick F. Alger (International Studies Association), William E. Nelson Jr. (National Conference of Black Political Scientists), Brian Pollins (Peace Science Society, International), and Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier (Political Methodology Society). E. Allen Helms, John Kessel, Herbert Weisberg, Gregory Caldeira, and Janet Box-Steffensmeier have served as president of the Midwest Political Science Association. The American Political Science Association has given its Frank J. Goodnow Award for service to the profession to Samuel C. Patterson and Paul Allen Beck.

The OSU department has housed several of the top political science journals. The flagship American Political Science Review was at OSU for two editorships: that of Harvey C. Mansfield Sr. and of Samuel C. ("Pat") Patterson. The American Journal of Political Science was in the department during three editorships: John H. Kessel, the joint editorship of Herbert B. Asher and Herbert F. Weisberg, and, more recently, Gregory A. Caldeira. The leading international relations journal, International Studies Quarterly, was at OSU under the co-editorship of Richard K. Herrmann, Brian M. Pollins, and Goldie A. Shabad. The Political Behavior journal was edited at OSU by Diana Mutz. Currently, Alexander Wendt is co-editing International Theory and Randy Schweller is the editor-in-chief of Security Studies.