Huntley was born in Cardwell, Montana, in 1911. He was the son of Percy Adams ("Pat") Huntley, a rancher and railroad telegrapher, and Blanche Tatham. A descendant through his father of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Huntley grew up in what was the last American frontier of cattlemen and miners. His earliest years were spent on a ranch, but hard times eventually brought his father to full-time employment as a telegrapher for the Northern Pacific railroad. Huntley's boyhood was spent along the railroad's right-of-way in a succession of small towns. Despite the frequent uprooting that his father's career entailed, Huntley gained a lifelong appreciation of outdoor life and a belief in what he took to be the frontier values of family, independence, hard work, and honesty.
Two prime influences on his life were his maternal grandfather, W. R. Tatum, a rancher who exemplified the rugged spirit of the West, and a high school English teacher, Callie Allison, who taught him "a love of language, " at Whitehall High School.