Nixon was born in Manhattan, the only child of Anne Elizabeth (née Knoll; died 2013), an actress originally from Chicago, and Walter E. Nixon Jr. (died 1998), a radio journalist from Texas. [nb 1] She is of English and German descent. Her grandparents were Adolph Knoll, Etta Williams, Walter Nixon, Sr. , and Grace McCormack. Nixon's parents divorced when she was six years old. According to Nixon, her father was often unemployed and her mother was the household's main breadwinner: Nixon's mother worked on the game show To Tell the Truth, coaching the "impostors" claiming to be the person described by the host. Nixon made her first television appearance on the show at the age of nine as one of the "impostors", pretending to be a junior horse riding champion. Nixon was an actress all through her years at Hunter College Elementary School and Hunter College High School (class of 1984), often taking time away from school to perform in film and on the stage. Nixon also acted in order to pay her way through Barnard College of Columbia University. In the spring of 1986, she studied abroad with Semester at Sea.