Falling more sharply than expected, new jobless claims numbered 550,000 in the week ended on August 1.
That was below the revised 588,000 new claims filed in the preceding week, and lower than the average analyst forecast of 580,000.
Initial jobless claims were at their lowest level since the week ended on July 11. New weekly jobless claims peaked in late March, at 674,000, and since June have headed lower.
On a four-week moving average that smooths volatility, initial claims dropped for the sixth month running last week, to 555,250 from 560,000 the prior week. The rolling average was the smallest since January.
In the week ended on July 25, the unemployment rate for those receiving insurance was 4.7%, unchanged from the prior week.
The U.S. had 6.310 million workers claiming unemployment benefits, up from 6.241 million in the week ended on July 18.
The Labor Department is due to publish July jobs data on August 7 that economists expect will show the unemployment rate climbed to 9.6% from a 26-year high of 9.5% in June.
Widely considered a lagging indicator, unemployment is expected to get worse even as the economy begins to stabilize and recover from the worst slump since the Great Depression was easing.
Government data last week showed output in the world's largest economy fell a narrower-than-expected 1% in the April-June period, following a sharp 6.4% contraction in the first quarter. Although many economists see a return to growth in the second half of the year, some warn that rising unemployment could hinder recovery.
By the end of June, companies had shed 6.5 million jobs since the recession started in December 2007.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009