Rationale Evidence-based medicine (EBM) has been acclaimed as a major advance in medical science, but criticized as a proposed alternative model for the practice and teaching of medicine. Ambiguity regarding the proper role of the contributions of EBM within the fabric of medicine and health care has contributed to this discrepancy. Aims and objectives We undertook a critical review of the history of the EBM movement, beginning with its origins in the 1970s and continuing through this century. We drew upon the results of an independent project that rationalized the EBM domain from the perspective of educational evaluation and assessment. We considered the content of EBM in relationship to the propositions and promises embodied in advocacy publications. Results EBM emerged in the context of the explosion of biomedical information in the decade preceding public access to the Internet in the mid-1990s and drew upon the independently derived 'information literacy' formula developed by information scientists during the 1980s. The critically important content and achievements of EBM are fully explained within the confines of the information literacy model. The thesis that EBM offers an alternative paradigm for individualized health care, asserted in the advocacy literature, is not supported by published models of evidence-based clinical practice. Conclusion A critical historical review of the origins, content and development of the EBM movement proposes that full integration of the fruits of the movement into routine clinical care remains a conceptual and practical challenge.