Wicker was born in Hamlet, North Carolina. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina. He won a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 1957. In 1993, he returned to Harvard, where he was a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government.
Wicker began working in professional journalism in 1949, as editor of the small-town Sandhill Citizen in Aberdeen, North Carolina. By the early 1960s, he had joined the times of The New York Times. At the Times, he became well-known as a political reporter...one of the lead journalists for the paper's coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy...and a shrewd observer of the Washington, D.C. scene. In that capacity, his influential "In The Nation" column ran in the TImes from 1966 through 1992. In an exit-interview Q & A with fellow TImes reporter R.W. Apple, he reflected on one primary lesson of his years in the capitol. Apple asked whether Wicker had "any heroes" in political life.
: I think it tends to work the other way. Which doesn't mean that I look at all those people with contempt...quite the opposite. But the journalist's perspective makes you see the feet of clay and the warts, and that's a good thing. I found them in many cases to be truly engaging human beings and admirable persons but not really, in the long run, impeccable heroes, or even just heroes without the "impeccable." We should try to see people as clearly as we can. Then if a hero does come into view, why, we can give him his due.
Wicker's 1975 book A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt, which recounted the events at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, during September 1971, received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Fact Crime book. He is also the author of several books about U.S. presidents, including Kennedy Without Tears: The Man Beneath the Myth (1964), JFK & LBJ: The Influence of Personality Upon Politics (1966), and One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream (1991). Other books include Facing the Lions (1973), a novel about a presidential campaign involving a candidate modeled on Sen. Estes Kefauver; Unto This Hour (1984), a novel of the Civil War, during the Battle of Second Bull Run, Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America (1996) and Shooting Star : The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy (2006).
Wicker's work earned him a place on the master list of Nixon political opponents. He wrote the essay on Richard Nixon for the book Character Above All: Ten Presidents from FDR to George Bush (1995). Wicker was mentioned in a 60 Minutes report from the 1970s which detailed how, along with other journalists and members of Congress who supported desegregation busing, Wicker and the others nevertheless sent their children to DC private schools.