OK, here's an excessively long expansion of my comment.

According to Goulden and Jackson's *Enumerative Combinatorics* (p. 76), the commutative version of the original formula is due to MacMahon, though they only refer to his book *Combinatory Analysis* and don't give a more specific reference. I was not able to find this formula in MacMahon's book, but on pages 99–100 of Volume I (Section III, Chapter III) MacMahon gives the related generating function (in modern notation)
$$\frac{1}{1-e_2 -2e_3 -3e_4-\cdots},$$
for counting derangements of a multiset. Here $e_i$ is the $i$th elementary symmetric function. (MacMahon uses $p_i$ for the elementary symmetric function, which is the modern notation for the power sum symmetric function.) It's not hard to show that (with $p_i$ the power sum symmetric function $x_1^i+x_2^i+\cdots$) we have
$$
\frac{1}{1-p_1+p_2-\cdots} = \frac{1+e_1+e_2+\cdots}{1-e_2 -2e_3 -3e_4-\cdots}.
$$
A combinatorial interpretation of the connection between these two generating functions has been given by J. Dollhopf, I. Goulden, and C. Greene, Words avoiding a reflexive acyclic relation, Electronic J. Combin. 11, no. 2, 2004–2006.

Words with adjacent letters different were called *waves* by L. Carlitz, who gave the (commutative) generating function for them in *Enumeration of sequences by rises and falls: a refinement of the Simon Newcomb problem*, Duke Math. J. 39 (1972), 267–280. This is probably the first appearance of the generating function, unless it's hiding somewhere in MacMahon. (Carlitz actually solved the more general problem of counting words by rises, falls, and levels.) Nowadays words with adjacent letters different are usually called *Smirnov words* or *Smirnov sequences*. This term was introduced by Goulden and Jackson; apparently Smirnov suggested the problem of counting these words though it's not clear that he did anything to solve the problem. According to the review in Mathematical Reviews of O. V. Sarmanov and V. K. Zaharov, *A combinatorial problem of N. V. Smirnov* (Russian),
Dokl. Akad. Nauk SSSR 176 (1967) 530–532 (I didn't look up the actual paper),
“The late N. V. Smirnov posed informally the following problem from the theory of order statistics: Given $n$ objects of $s+1$ distinct types (with $r_i$ objects of type $i$, $r_1+\cdots+r_{s+1}=n$), find the number of ways these objects may be arranged in a chain, so that adjacent objects are always of distinct types.”

When considered as compositions, i.e., when the entries are added together, Smirnov words are often called *Carlitz compositions*, as they were studied from this point of view by L. Carlitz, *Restricted compositions*,
Fibonacci Quart. 14 (1976), no. 3, 254–264.
The generalization that Darij describes in his fourth comment was first proved, as far as I know (though stated in a weaker commutative form) by Ralph Fröberg, *Determination of a class of Poincaré series*, Math. Scand. 37 (1975), 29–39 (page 35). It was proved (independently) shortly thereafter in L. Carlitz, R. Scoville, and T. Vaughan, *Enumeration of pairs of sequences by rises, falls, and levels*, Manuscripta Math. 19 (1976), 211–243 (Theorem 7.3). Their statement of the theorem doesn't seem to use noncommuting variables, though their proof contains a formula—equation (7.7)—which is essentially the noncommutative version. (I am not sure that this really makes any difference.) Just to be clear, I'll restate the theorem here, more or less, though not exactly, the way Carlitz, Scoville and Vaughan state it, with some comments in brackets.

*Let $S$ be a finite set of objects and let $A$ and $B$ be complementary subsets of $S\times S$. Let $F_A$ be the generating function for all paths [today we would call them words, or possibly sequences] which avoid relations from $A$. [This is referring to a partition of $A$ which is related to their applications of the theorem, but is not really relevant to the theorem.] More specifically, define
$$F_A = 1+\sum s_{i_1}+\sum s_{i_1}s_{i_2}+\sum s_{i_1}s_{i_2}s_{i_3}+\cdots,$$
where, for example, the last sum is taken over all $i_1,i_2,i_3$ such that $s_{i_1} \mathrel{B}s_{i_2}$ and $s_{i_2}\mathrel{B} s_{i_3}$. (We use lower-case $s_i$'s for both the members of the set $S$ and for the indeterminates [which are presumably commuting] in the enumeration.)
We also introduce
$$\tilde F_B = 1-\sum s_i +\sum s_{i_1}s_{i_2}-\cdots$$
where the signs alternate and the relations must be from $A$ instead of $B$.*

*7.3 THEOREM. The functions $F_A$ and $\tilde F_B$ are related by $F_A\cdot \tilde F_B = 1$.*

Both Fröberg and Carlitz–Scoville–Vaughhan prove this by showing that all the terms in $F_A\cdot \tilde F_B$ except 1 cancel in pairs. However there is another way to prove it: expand $\tilde F_B^{-1}$ as
$\sum_{k=0}^\infty (1-\tilde F_B)^k$ and use inclusion-exclusion.

Carlitz, Scoville, and Vaughan then apply the theorem to counting Smirnov words.

The Carlitz–Scoville–Vaughan theorem is one of my favorite formulas in enumerative combinatorics, and my 1977 Ph.D. thesis has many applications of it. The slides from a talk I gave about this theorem can be found here.

An Introduction to Symmetric Functions and Their Combinatorics, AMS 2019. It also appears in the Second Proof of Proposition 5.3 in Richard P. Stanley,A Symmetric Function Generalization of the Chromatic Polynomial of a Graph. I wouldn't be surprised if it goes back further to Carlitz. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Jun 16 at 19:41Combinatorial Enumeration, Wiley 1983 also gives the commutative projection of your formula. It appears noncommutative power series were insufficiently known (or popular) back when these were written... $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Jun 16 at 19:57