The station signed-on for the first time on October 24, 1953. It was co-owned with WTRF radio (1290 AM, now WYLY, and 100.5 FM, now WBGI-FM) which had signed on across the Ohio River in Bellaire, Ohio, in 1947. The call letters stood for Two Radio Frequencies, a nod to FM 100.5 being used to continue programming when AM 1290 signed off at sunset. The radio stations were sold off in the 1970s to help finance the television station.
WTRF was originally an NBC affiliate but also carried some programming from ABC, splitting that network's programming with then-CBS affiliate WSTV-TV (channel 9, now WTOV-TV). In 1979, WTRF became the area's first station to use videotape rather than film.
For its first quarter-century on the air, WTRF-TV was the undisputed leader in the Wheeling–Steubenville market despite being well within reach of the much larger Pittsburgh market. As of 2017, the Wheeling–Steubenville market remains separate from Pittsburgh despite the very close proximity between the two markets as well as significantly overlapping signals between the two markets.
On January 7, 1980, WTRF swapped network affiliations with WTOV and became a CBS affiliate. NBC had struggled in the ratings for a number of years at the time and WTRF wanted a stronger affiliation. It also dropped the remaining ABC programs from its schedule. This was not as serious a problem as it appeared, since Pittsburgh's WTAE-TV (channel 4) was widely available in the area over-the-air and on cable. However, the switch backfired disastrously. While as an NBC affiliate, channel 7 had to contend with Pittsburgh's WIIC-TV (channel 11, now WPXI), one of NBC's weakest affiliates, for network viewers, it now had to contend with KDKA-TV (channel 2), one of CBS' strongest affiliates, as it was (and remains today) widely viewable in the area both over-the-air and available on cable. This, combined with NBC's resurgence in the 1980s while CBS faltered at the same time, saw WTRF become a very distant second to WTOV in the local ratings. While CBS rebounded in the 1990s, WTRF has never really recovered, with some viewers even watching now-CBS O&O KDKA-TV for CBS programming over WTRF.