The peripheral naïve T cell pool is comprised of a heterogeneous population of cells at various stages of development, which is a process that begins in the thymus and is completed after a post-thymic maturation phase in the periphery. One hallmark of naïve T cells in secondary lymphoid organs is their unique ability to produce TNF rapidly after activation and prior to acquiring other effector functions. To determine how maturation influences the licensing of naïve T cells to produce TNF, we compared cytokine profiles of CD4(+) and CD8(+) single positive (SP) thymocytes, recent thymic emigrants (RTEs) and mature-naïve (MN) T cells during TCR activation. SP thymocytes exhibited a poor ability to produce TNF when compared to splenic T cells despite expressing similar TCR levels and possessing comparable activation kinetics (upregulation of CD25 and CD69). Provision of optimal antigen presenting cells from the spleen did not fully enable SP thymocytes to produce TNF, suggesting an intrinsic defect in their ability to produce TNF efficiently. Using a thymocyte adoptive transfer model, we demonstrate that the ability of T cells to produce TNF increases progressively with time in the periphery as a function of their maturation state. RTEs that were identified in NG-BAC transgenic mice by the expression of GFP showed a significantly enhanced ability to express TNF relative to SP thymocytes but not to the extent of fully MN T cells. Together, these findings suggest that TNF expression by naïve T cells is regulated via a gradual licensing process that requires functional maturation in peripheral lymphoid organs.