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From the thread title, it sounds like it's asking a historical question, like "what was the first complete, usable operating system with a working UI (i.e. shell), based on the Linux kernel, that was ever used?". But I see it's more like "what was the very first Linux distro you ever used?".
I had EXACTLY the same thought when I looked at it...
I started using Debian & Slackware around 1999/2000 and dual boot with Win98...at the time those were the only distros that I could install without a lot of installing issues. I did try Red Hat also but didn't like it, I guess rpm hell. Then for some reason I got tired of fiddling around with those and wanted to dual boot Mandrake 7 or 8 and it wiped the hard drive clean and I ended up with it only. I left it like that for about 6 months before switching back to Debian for its package manager ease of use. But I always kept extra partition to try different distros. Currently I'm using Mandriva 2010.1 as my main distro.
Started off with Mandrake 9.0 on a Pentium 300
Basically played with Debian 2, Red Hat 8, Suse, Knoppix and anything else that come on the cover of a magazine. Essentially have stayed with Mandrake ( now Mandriva ) mostly for ease of installation, ease of maintenance and I prefer KDE.
I have also used PC-BSD 2, which was also pretty good, and when I get a spare machine I will load that again ( now up to version 8 ) for the same reasons.
May be 2002/03. Do not remember. Was RH9 which I got for no cost. Then went back to RH7 as well for some time. Left RH for Ubuntu 6 and it has been Ubuntu since then. Still have CentOS on servers though and have tried Debian, Slackware, Fedora, OpenSuse, Mint, Zenwalk and some other too. Currently onto Ubuntu Lucid and getting again hands on Slack.
Well, this sort of thread is always interesting, so I can't help but to reply...
While my first distro was openSUSE back in '07, I'd have to say it was PCLinuxOS which had me fully committed to using Linux full-time. At the time, I wanted to use KDE, at its implementation of KDE is still much better than openSUSE's or Kubuntu, IMHO.
Of course, it used RPM packages, but I didn't know any better.
I started out with Mandrake 7.0 way back in 2000. I didn't really start using GNU/Linux as a primary OS until about 2005. I distro-hopped quite a bit before sticking with Ubuntu on one machine and Slackware on the other.
Ded Rat (RedHat) 4.5 for me was my first install; I had used some early version of Slackware earlier, but I hadn't personally installed it.
(At the time, I was using HP-UX part time, professionally, and preferred Ded Rat massively, which I wouldn't have predicted. Looking back, and applying today's standards, Ded Rat 4.5 was such an unsophisticated piece of kit, it is difficult to believe that there was anything that worked that I could have preferred it to, but it was the case. Didn't take me long to find that I wanted to move somewhere else, though.)