The OCL was founded in 1940 by Victor Desarzens, in conjunction with the Radio Suisse Romande. Desarzens was the ensemble's first music director, and initially had designed his new orchestra to be comprised only of strings. Its first public concert did not come until 1942, and it flourished in the only major European country largely unaffected by the war. In its early years, the OCL attracted some of the most prominent conductors in Europe, including Ernest Ansermet, Andrè Cluytens, Gunter Wand, Witold Rowicki, and composer/conductors Paul Hindemith and Frank Martin. In 1949, the OCL began to concertize outside Swiss borders and achieved many successes in the endeavor. The ensemble officially separated from Swiss Radio four years later, but continued to give regular broadcast concerts. In recent years, the orchestra has continued its tradition of attracting important conductors of the day to lead them. Armin Jordan was appointed music director in 1973 and served in that capacity until 1985. Lawrence Foster then led the orchestra for the next five years, yielding the podium in 1990 to Jesús López-Cobos. The newest and current music director is Christian Zacharias, who took over the reins for the 2000-01 concert season. Among the most important recordings by the OCL over the years have been those in the series of operas by Franz Joseph Haydn, led by conductor Antal Dorati. This 1970s project for Philips included highly-praised accounts of L'isola disabitata, Orlando Paladino, and La vera costanza. In recent times, the OCL has also recorded symphonies of Haydn for Denon, and made numerous other recordings for various labels including Teldec, Erato, Claves, and MDG. The ensemble's repertory while focusing heavily on the Baroque and Classical eras, also includes Renaissance and pre-Renaissance music, as well as works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the latter period, they have paid particular attention to the works of Swiss composer Frank Martin.
In the 1990s, the OCL made numerous tours abroad, performing throughout Germany, Italy, France and the U.S. The orchestra still broadcasts concerts regularly over Swiss radio, with re-broadcasts presented throughout the world.