ROC analysis provides a systematic tool for quantifying the impact of variability among individuals’ decision thresholds. The term receiver operating characteristic (ROC) originates from the use of radar during World War II. Just as American soldiers deciphered a blip on the radar screen as a German bomber, a friendly plane, or just noise, radiologists face the task of identifying abnormal tissue against a complicated background. As radar technology advanced during the war, the need for a standard system to evaluate detection accuracy became apparent. ROC analysis was developed as a standard methodology to quantify a signal receiver’s ability to correctly distinguish objects of interest from the background noise in the system.
For instance, each radiologist has his or her own visual clues guiding them to a clinical decision as whether the pattern variation of a mammogram indicates tissue abnormalities or just normal variation. The varying decisions make up a range of decision thresholds.Institute of Medicine (US) and National Research Council (US) Committee on New Approaches to Early Detection and Diagnosis of Breast Cancer; Joy JE, Penhoet EE, Petitti DB, editors. Saving Women’s Lives: Strategies for Improving Breast Cancer Detection and Diagnosis. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2005. Appendix C, ROC Analysis: Key Statistical Tool for Evaluating Detection Technologies. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22319/
The earliest book reference that I know of is
Woodward, P. M. (1953). Probability and information theory with applications to radar. London: Pergamon Press.
but the concept, which was developed during World War II for the analysis of radar receivers, might have been published earlier than 1953 in journal articles (after the War was over) or in the multivolume series of texts published by the MIT Radiation Laboratory about their research during World War II.