Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) has the capacity to establish a life-long latent infection in sensory neurones and also to periodically reactivate from these cells. Since mutant viruses defective for immediate-early (IE) expression retain the capacity for latency establishment it is widely assumed that latency is the consequence of a block in IE gene expression. However, it is not clear whether viral gene expression can precede latency establishment following wild-type virus infection. In order to address this question we have utilized a reporter mouse model system to facilitate a historical analysis of viral promoter activation in vivo. This system utilizes recombinant viruses expressing Cre recombinase under the control of different viral promoters and the Cre reporter mouse strain ROSA26R. In this model, viral promoter-driven Cre recombinase mediates a permanent genetic change, resulting in reporter gene activation and permanent marking of latently infected cells. The analyses of HSV-1 recombinants containing human cytomegalovirus major immediate-early, ICP0, gC or latency-associated transcript promoters linked to Cre recombinase in this system have revealed the existence of a population of neurones that have experienced IE promoter activation prior to the establishment of latency.