The story is told from the point of view of a narrator who admits to having killed the local sheriff, and claims to be falsely accused of having killed the deputy sheriff. The narrator also claims to have acted in self-defense when the sheriff tried to shoot him. The song was first released in 1973 on The Wailers' album Burnin'. Marley explained his intention as follows: "I want to say 'I shot the police' but the government would have made a fuss so I said 'I shot the sheriff' instead… but it's the same idea: justice."
In 1992, with the controversy surrounding the Ice-T song "Cop Killer", Marley's song was often cited by Ice-T's supporters as evidence of his detractors' hypocrisy considering the older song was never similarly criticized despite having much the same theme.
In 2012, Bob Marley's former girlfriend revealed the origin of the lyrics. To the surprise of many, she explained that the lyrics, "Sheriff John Brown always hated me, For what, I don't know: Every time I plant a seed, He said kill it before it grow" was actually in response to the fact that Marley was very opposed to her use of birth control pills. Marley's opposition to birth control led Marley to substitute the word "sheriff" for "doctor".
"I Shot the Sheriff" was the lead single released from Warren G's second album, Take a Look Over Your Shoulder. Warren replaced Marley's original lyrics with his own, though Clapton's version of the song is sampled and R&B singer Nancy Fletcher sings the original chorus. The song was a hit in several countries. In the US, it peaked at number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified Gold by the RIAA on 2 May 1997. It peaked at number two in the UK and at number one in New Zealand.
On EPMD's 1988 Strictly Business LP, the title track uses a sample of "I Shot the Sheriff" (Clapton's version).
In Mary J. Blige's 1992 debut album (What's the 411?), Grand Puba declared "I shot the sheriff and put six up in the deputy" in the title track.
In the 1994 hip hopmockumentaryFear of a Black Hat, a scene involving gangsta rapper Ice Cold (Rusty Cundieff) getting pulled over by a gated community’s security guard unit has one guard confiscating one of his registered guns and sarcastically says: "Let me guess…you shot the sheriff, but you didn’t shoot the deputy."
On Erik Truffaz' 1998 album The Dawn, the final track "Free Stylin'" with vocals by Nya contains the lyric "Bob shot the sheriff; me, I come to finish the deputy."
Argentine singer Andrés Calamaro made a mashup of the first verse of the song with the last one of his own "El Dia Mundial de la Mujer" (Women's World Day), when played alive on his Honestidad Brutal tour.
In the song "Be Free" by Bob's son Ziggy Marley, a brief line in the song says: "I shot the deputy, now you know." Ziggy was four years old when his father's song was released.
In the Eureka episode 'Reprise' (4.12), characters are acting out song lyrics, including Jo who shoots Carter under this song's influence.