Harwood was born in Louisville, Ky., and grew up in the Maryland suburbs outside of the nation’s capital. He has been around journalism and politics all his life; his first trip on a presidential campaign press plane came when he was 11 years old and accompanied his father, then a political reporter for the Washington Post.
While still in high school, he began his journalism career as a copy boy at the Washington Star. He studied history and economics at Duke University and graduated magna cum laude in 1978. Harwood subsequently joined the St. Petersburg Times, reporting on police, investigative projects, local government and politics. Later he became state capital correspondent in Tallahassee, Washington correspondent and Political Editor. While covering national politics, he also traveled extensively to South Africa, where he covered deepening unrest against the apartheid regime.