Club Deportivo Tenerife was founded in 1912, but some earlier documents show the existence of Sporting Club Tenerife, which could have been the club's precursor. La Liga started in 1928, but the team played in regional divisions until it was promoted to Segunda División in 1953; it first reached the top flight in 1961, being immediately relegated back and, in the following 27 years, played almost exclusively in the second level, also spending three years in Tercera División and six – five in a row – in Segunda División B, the newly created division three (in 1978).
In 1985, when Tenerife were relegated to the third division for a second time, Javier Pérez became president of the club. The side was promoted this year to the second level and, two years later, returned to the first, after winning the promotion playoff against Real Betis (4–1 on aggregate).
Tenerife then went on a downward spiral which eventually led to relegation to the "silver category" in 1999, prompting various managerial changes within the club. In 2001 the club was again promoted, led by Rafael Benítez, who promptly left to take up the manager's job at Valencia CF; the promotion was achieved in the last match of the campaign, thanks to a goal from Hugo Morales.
Tenerife suffered from serious economic problems in the following years, owing more than €40 million. President Pérez was replaced with Víctor Perez de Ascanio, who resigned due to bad management, leaving his position to Miguel Concepción, who negotiated with local politicians and businessmen, also creating a construction company as a subsidiary of the side.
Fans of Tenerife are called Chicharreros because in early days, the inhabitants of a small fishing village called Santa Cruz (later the capital of Tenerife) consumed "chicharros" (Atlantic horse mackerel) as a main part of their diet.
Other inhabitants of Tenerife and Canary Islands used the moniker as a pejorative name, but finally the inhabitants of Santa Cruz accepted it affectionately.