Through the years, many models, such as Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Paulina Porizkova, Elle Macpherson, Rachel Hunter, Rebecca Romijn, Petra Nemcova, Valeria Mazza, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, and Marisa Miller, have been featured on the cover. Other models within its pages, but not on its cover, include Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, Niki Taylor, Angie Everhart, and Naomi Campbell. The eight models featured on the cover of the 2006 issue were featured in a coffee-table book called Sports Illustrated: Exposure. Photographed by Raphael Mazzucco and produced by Diane Smith, the unprecedented "reunion shoot" featured 139 pages of previously-unpublished images. In 2006, the issue expanded publishing to handheld devices. In 2007, the swimsuit issue was first available in China.
The swimsuit issue was invented by Sports Illustrated editor Andre Laguerre to fill the winter months, a typically slow point in the sporting calendar. He asked fashion reporter Jule Campbell to go on a shoot to fill space, including the cover, with a beautiful model. The first issue, released in 1964, entailed a cover featuring Babette March and a five-page layout. Campbell soon became a powerful figure in modeling and molded the issue into a media phenomenon by featuring "bigger and healthier" California women and printing the names of the models with their photos, beginning a new supermodel era. However, the issue did not exclusively feature models until 1997. In the 1950s a few women appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but the 1964 issue is considered to be the beginning of the current format known as the Swimsuit Issue. In 1997, Tyra Banks was the first black woman on the cover. That year's issue was the first that was a stand-alone edition, separate from the regular weekly magazine.
Female athletes have appeared in swimsuit shoots. Steffi Graf appeared in 1997. In the 2003 issue, tennis player Serena Williams and figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva were featured inside the magazine. In 2016, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey became the first female athlete to appear on the cover. However, Anna Kournikova appeared in an inset on the 2004 cover, and had a photo spread within its pages.
In 2005, Olympic gold medalists Amanda Beard and Jennie Finch, along with Lauren Jackson and Venus Williams, were featured. Maria Sharapova appeared in an inset on the 2006 cover and had a spread inside. In spring 2006, Sports Illustrated chose music as the theme for the 2007 issue. Swimsuit editor Diane Smith wanted Grammy-winner Beyonc Knowles to pose. In 2006, Beyonc launched a swimsuit line under her House of Deron clothing label. Beyonc Knowles became the first singer, and first non-model, to appear on the cover in 2007.
In 2008, NFL cheerleaders appeared for the first time. Teams include the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins and Houston Texans.
Race car driver Danica Patrick appeared in 2008. She was featured in a four-page spread set in Singer Island, Florida.
For the 2010 issue, four female Winter Olympians appeared in swimsuits: Clair Bidez, Lacy Schnoor, Hannah Teter, and Lindsey Vonn as well as Ana Ivanovic. Criticism of Ivanovic's appearance in the magazine shortly surfaced, as the Serb was suffering a decline in form and confidence and subsequently dropped out of the WTA's Top 50 a month after appearing in the magazine. However, since November 2010 Ivanovic has re-entered the World's Top 20 and regained her old form and confidence.
Australian hurdler Michelle Jenneke appeared in the 2013 issue after having gained notoriety for her warm-up dance routine which went viral on YouTube.
Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki appeared in the 2015 issue. She is an active player, formerly world number one, and was photographed at Captiva Island in the Gulf of Mexico by Walter Iooss, Jr.
Top ranked Canadian tennis player Eugenie Bouchard appeared for the first time in the 2017 issue.She is an active player who has achieved a top five rank in tennis in 2014.