O you who deceive others! We are not the first to use this term (salafi), nor do we bring about innovation, so you should review the ascriptions. (Sheikh Muqbil bin Haadi al-Waadi'ee rahimahullah)
Sheikh Salih bin Fawzaan hafidhullah said: Ahl Sunnah have been called Ahl Sunnah, due to their ascription to an Nabi salla lahu alayhi wa salaam, and they don't ascribe themselves to particular statements or other minhaj'.
This is in contrast to the Ahl Bidah. They ascribe to their innovations and misguidance.
The founder to the dawahtus salafiyyah is the Prophet sallallahu alaihi wa sallam. All of them called to one manhaj, creed and methodology.And whoever contradicts and opposes the Messenger after the right path has been shown clearly to him, and follows other than the believers' way. We shall keep him in the path he has chosen, and burn him in Hell - what an evil destination. (An-Nisa 4:115)
So If they believe in the like of that which you believe, then they are rightly guided, but if they turn away, then they are only in opposition. So Allâh will suffice you against them. And He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower. (Al-Baqarah 2:137)
The Prophet sallallahu alaihi wa sallam said, "The people of my generation are the best, then those who follow them (Taabi'een), and then whose who follow the latter (Taabi ut-Taabi'een). After that there will come some people whose witness will preceed their oaths, and their oaths will preceed their witness." (Narrated by Abdullah radi Allahu anhu, Collected by Imam Ahmad, Bukhari and Muslim)
Salafi means, each and everyone who traverses upon following and emulating the companions of the Prophet sallallahu alaihi wa sallam , even if they are in our time.This is what the statement of the Ahl Ilm is based upon, so it is an ascription that does not go outside of The Book and Sunnah, and doesn't stray from it. Rather Salafiyyah is from them and returns back to them.
Sheikh Bakr bin Abdullah Abu Zaid said: Be a Salafi upon the correct path, upon the way of the Salaf as Salih (the companions), and those who traversed upon their tracks in every area of the religion.The term Salafi was not used during the time of the companions, because all of them were reliable; they all agreed upon the truth, everyone understood it and it was known.
The well known principal "Distinguishing Truth from Falsehood" had to be established when the deviant sects emerged, so the term began to be used. From the beginning of the time line of the usage of the term Salaf, is what has been collected by Bukhari and Muslim (wording by Muslim), in the hadith of Aishah radi Allahu anha: Fatimah radi Allahu anha stated, an Nabi salla lahu alayhi wa salaam was speaking to me... "and you are the closest of my family to me, and what a good and blessed Salaf (preceded your arrival, so therefore return your affairs back to me) I am for you."