The song was inspired by an event that took place during the early stages of the psychedelic era in November 1966, the year in which Buffalo Springfield started playing as the house band at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Times, annoyed residents and business owners in the district had encouraged the passage of strict (10:00 p.m.) curfew and loitering laws to reduce the traffic congestion resulting from crowds of young club patrons. This was subsequently perceived by young, local rock and roll music fans as an infringement on their civil rights, and on Saturday, November 12, 1966, fliers were distributed along the Strip inviting people to demonstrate later that day.
Hours before the protest one of L.A.'s rock 'n' roll radio stations announced there would be a rally at Pandora's Box, a club at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights, and cautioned people to tread carefully. The Times reported that as many as 1,000 youthful demonstrators, including such celebrities as Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda (who was afterward handcuffed by police), erupted in protest against the perceived repressive enforcement of these recently invoked curfew laws.
Though often mistaken for an anti-war song, it was this first of the "Sunset Strip riots" which inspired then Buffalo Springfield band member Stephen Stills to write "For What It’s Worth", recorded about three weeks after on December 5, 1966.
The song quickly became a well-known protest song. The song's title appears nowhere in its lyrics; it is more easily remembered by the first line of chorus: "Stop, children, what's that sound?"
Stills said in an interview that the name of the song came about when he presented it to the record company executive Ahmet Ertegun who signed Buffalo Springfield to the Atlantic Records-owned ATCO label. He said: "I have this song here, for what it's worth, if you want it." Another producer, Charlie Greene, claims that Stills first said the above sentence to him, but credits Ahmet Ertegun with subtitling the single "Stop, Hey What's That Sound" so that the song would be more easily recognized.
In 2006, when interviewed on Tom Kent's radio show "Into the '70s", Stephen Stills pointed out that many people think "For What It's Worth" is about the Kent State Shootings (1970), despite predating that event by over three years.Neil Young, Stills' bandmate in both Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, would later write Ohio, in response to the events at Kent State.
The song was played (without Neil Young's presence) at Buffalo Springfield's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Staple Singers covered "For What It's Worth" in 1967 on the Epic Records label.
Cher released a version as a single in 1969. The Allmusic review was that "For What It's Worth" don't seem like ideal choices today, she sounds mature, forceful..."
The Muppet Show episode 221 has a partially rewritten version of the song with forest animals singing about the hunters in their forest, and having to hide after each chorus as the hunters rampage by, apparently shooting at everything that moves.
Canadian rock band Rush included their version of this song on their 2004 EP Feedback. American Idol runner-up Crystal Bowersox recorded a version and released it on her 2010 CD Farmer's Daughter.
The song was heavily sampled and reinterpreted by Public Enemy for their 1998 song "He Got Game".
In movies, "For What It's Worth" plays during the opening credits of Lord of War, and was also used in Forrest Gump.
It was also used for a Miller beer commercial. It has been noted that though Buffalo Springfield member Neil Young never allows his work to be used for commercials, he did not write this song. He has publicly criticized those who do, however, in his song "This Note's for You."