About 326,000 people filed for unemployment benefits for the first time last week, the Labor Department said. Analysts had expected initial claims to rise, but only to about 310,000.
The previous week's figure of 298,000, which was revised up slightly, was the best since May 2007.
In more detailed data for that week, the Labor Department said Thursday that the number of people receiving unemployment benefits fell to 2.65 million. That was the lowest level since December 2007, when the Great Recession began.
Weekly claims can be volatile. The four-week average, which smoothes out some of the variation, was down by 1,000 last week, to 322,500.
Claims this year have been running well below the 350,000 weekly level that economists say indicate moderate job growth.