I know the word annuity scares people, but if you look at how the IRS describes a 403(b), they use the word Annuity:
http://www.irs.gov/retirement/article/0 ... 30,00.html
IRC 403(b) Tax-Sheltered Annuity Plans
A 403(b) tax-sheltered annuity (TSA) plan is a retirement plan offered by public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations. An individual’s 403(b) annuity can be obtained only under an employer’s TSA plan. Generally, these annuities are funded by elective deferrals made under salary reduction agreements and nonelective employer contributions.
The official publication for taxpayers is publication 571:
"Tax-Sheltered Annuity Plans (403(b) Plans)
For Employees of Public Schools and Certain Tax-Exempt Organizations"http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p571.pdf
Note that the IRS uses the term "Tax-Sheltered Annuity Plans" with 403(b) thrown in as a parenthetical comment.
What is a 403(b) Plan?
A 403(b) plan, also known as a tax-sheltered annuity (TSA) plan, is a retirement plan for certain employees of public schools, employees of certain tax-exempt organizations, and certain ministers.
Individual accounts in a 403(b) plan can be any of the following types.
• An annuity contract, which is a contract provided through an insurance company,
• A custodial account, which is an account invested in mutual funds, or
• A retirement income account set up for church employees. Generally, retirement income accounts can invest in either annuities or mutual funds.
The IRS has several publications on 403(b) plans, or should I say Tax Sheltered Annuity Plans.
Start with those linked from the first link, including a good general introduction: publication 4482 "403(b) Tax-Sheltered Annuity for Participants."http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/pub4482.pdf
None of this has anything specific to do with TIAA-CREF, but you have to realize that TIAA-CREF basically invented the concept before there ever was a 403(b) section to the IRS code.
In 1942, Congress introduced a mechanism to assist tax-exempt organizations in competing with other employers for the services of employees. The mechanism permitted employees of tax-exempt organizations to save more easily for their retirement. The Revenue Act of 1942 (the “1942 Act”) added Section 22(b)(2)(B) to the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”) which permitted tax sheltered annuities (“TSA”) for employees of certain tax-exempt organizations.
To address the issues that materialized under Section 22(b)(2)(B), Congress enacted the Technical Amendments Act of 1958 (the “1958 Act”). The 1958 Act further codified the tax deferred treatment and other benefits of annuities purchased by tax-exempt organizations by adding Section 403(b) to the Code.
TIAA started offering portable retirement plans to teachers in 1918:
"In 1918 the Carnegie Foundation established Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), a fully-funded system of pensions for professors."