BACKGROUND Community-acquired bacterial meningitis (CABM) is a life-threatening disease and timing of antibiotic therapy remains crucial. We aimed to analyse the impact of antibiotic timing on the outcome of CABM in a contemporary cohort. METHODS We conducted a population-based cohort study based on chart reviews of all adult cases (>16 years of age) of CABM in North Denmark from 1998 to 2014 excluding patients given pre-hospital parenteral antibiotics. We used modified Poisson regression analyses to compute the adjusted risk ratio (adj. RR) with 95 % confidence intervals (CIs) for in-hospital mortality and unfavourable outcome at discharge by time after arrival to hospital to adequate antibiotic therapy. RESULTS We identified 195 adults with CABM of whom 173 patients were eligible for further analyses. The median door-to-antibiotic time was 2.0 h (interquartile range (IQR) 1.0-5.5). We observed increased adjusted risk ratios for in-hospital mortality of 1.6 (95 % CI 0.8-3.2) and an unfavourable outcome at discharge of 1.5 (95 % CI 1.0-2.2, p = 0.03) when treatment delays exceeded 6 h versus treatment within 2 h of admission. These findings corresponded to adjusted risk ratios of in-hospital mortality of 1.1 per hour of delay (95 % CI 0.8-1.5) and an unfavourable outcome at discharge of 1.1 per hour of delay (95 % CI 1.0-1.3) within the first 6 h of admission. Some patients (31 %) were diagnosed after admission and had more delays in antibiotic therapy and correspondingly increased in-hospital mortality (30 vs 14 %, p = 0.01) and unfavourable outcome (62 vs 37 %, p = 0.002). CONCLUSIONS Delay in antibiotic therapy was associated with unfavourable outcome at discharge.