Background In non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), PD-L1 expression on either tumor cells (TC) or both TC and tumor-infiltrating immune cells (IC) is currently the most used biomarker in cancer immunotherapy. However, the mechanisms involved in PD-L1 regulation are not fully understood. To provide better insight in these mechanisms, a multiangular analysis approach was used to combine protein and mRNA expression with several clinicopathological characteristics. Patients and methods Archival tissues from 640 early stage, resected NSCLC patients were analyzed with immunohistochemistry for expression of PD-L1 and CD8 infiltration. In addition, mutational status and expression of a selection of immune genes involved in the PD-L1/PD-1 axis and T-cell 7response was determined. Results Tumors with high PD-L1 expression on TC or on IC represent two subsets of NSCLC with minimal overlap. We observed that PD-L1 expression on IC irrespective of expression on TC is a good marker for inflammation within tumors. In the tumors with the highest IC expression and absent TC expression an association with reduced IFNγ downstream signaling in tumor cells was observed. Conclusions These results show that PD-L1 expression on TC and IC are both independent hallmarks of the inflamed phenotype in NSCLC, and TC-negative/IC-high tumors can also be categorized as inflamed. The lack of correlation between PD-L1 TC and IC expression in this subgroup may be caused by impaired IFNγ signaling in tumor cells. These findings may bring a better understanding of the tumor-immune system interaction and the clinical relevance of PD-L1 expression on IC irrespective of PD-L1 expression on TC.