Phillips was born in Madison, Indiana. After graduating high school Phillips entered Asbury College following which he degreed from College of New Jersey in 1887.
After completing his education, Phillips worked as a newspaper reporter in Cincinnati, Ohio before moving on to New York City where he was employed as a columnist and editor with the New York World until 1902. In his spare time, he wrote a novel, The Great God Success that was published in 1901. The book sold well enough that his royalty income was sufficient enough to allow him to work as a freelance journalist while dedicating himself to writing fiction. Writing articles for various prominent magazines, he began to develop a reputation as a competent investigative journalist. Considered a progressive, Phillips' novels often commented on social issues of the day and frequently chronicled events based on his real-life journalistic experiences.