Anderson, currently a board member at Delta and an executive at UnitedHealth Group Inc., will replace Gerald Grinstein as Delta's CEO. Grinstein has said previously that he would step down once his successor was named.
Anderson will become CEO effective Sept. 1. With the appointment, Grinstein, 75, will retire from Delta and from its board.
Grinstein had lobbied Delta's board to tap an insider from the company as his replacement. The top internal candidates had been Chief Financial Officer Ed Bastian and Chief Operating Officer James Whitehurst.
Delta said in a statement that Anderson "brings a unique depth of experience to the position, having served in top jobs for several major U.S. corporations."
The board's chairman, Daniel A. Carp, said Anderson, 52, "possesses the right blend of seasoned leadership, strategic skills, international experience and airline knowledge the company needs to navigate the industry's challenges and capitalize on its opportunities."
The move could revive speculation in a possible merger between Atlanta-based Delta and Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest.
Delta said Tuesday that Bastian will add the title president to his duties. The company did not say anything about Whitehurst.
Anderson has worked at UnitedHealth for nearly three years. Before joining UnitedHealth, he was CEO of Northwest Airlines from 2001-2004. He also serves as a director of Cargill Inc. and Medtronic Inc., according to Delta's Web site.
The change at the top at Delta follows the airline's 19½-month reorganization under bankruptcy protection.
Delta entered Chapter 11 on Sept. 14, 2005. The company emerged on April 30.
In bankruptcy, Delta shed billions in costs and restructured the carrier's operations. It also survived a hostile takeover bid by Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways Group Inc.
Delta executives, faced with questions about a post-bankruptcy valuation below what they initially projected and below what US Airways offered for Delta, have declined to speculate about whether the airline would consider a merger with another carrier to increase shareholder value.
Besides finding a new CEO, Delta's board also has to decide whether to sell or spin off regional feeder carrier Comair. The airline has not provided a specific timetable for that decision.