William Burnet Kinney was born in Speedwell, New Jersey, on September 4, 1799, the son of Abraham Kinney and Hannah Burnet. During the War of 1812, he accompanied his father, a military officer, to the battlefield, where he delivered dispatches. He briefly attended the United States Military Academy after the war. Although he studied law and was admitted to the bar, Kinney pursued a career in journalism. He edited the New Jersey Eagle from 1820-1825, and worked for the New York Mercantile Library and the Harper & Brothers publishing company. Kinney later returned to New Jersey, where he managed Newark's Daily Advertiser. Between 1850 and 1856, he served as United States minister to Sardinia. He remained in Europe until 1865, when he retired to Newark.
Kinney married Mary Chandler on September 16, 1820, and they had one surviving son, Thomas Talmadge Kinney (1821-1900). Following Mary's death in 1841, Kinney married Elizabeth Clementine Dodge, with whom he had two daughters, Elizabeth Clementine and Mary Burnet. William Burnet Kinney died on October 21, 1880.