Initial unemployment claims for the week ending March 20 fell below 700,000, the first time below that number in a year, coming in at a seasonally adjusted 684,000.
The figure was a 97,000 drop from the revised 770,000 a week earlier and beat Wall Street expectations of 735,000.
It was the first week since the pandemic began that weekly claims fell below the pre-pandemic record of 695,000 set in 1982, though they remain above the Great Recession high of 665,000.
But the top-line figures mask deeper levels of pain still going on in the economy.
Another 241,745 people filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, an emergency program covering gig economy workers and the self-employed.
As of March 6, the last week for which data was available, nearly 19 million people were receiving benefits of any kind from a variety of programs, including 5.5 million on emergency programs for long-term unemployment.
“While this improvement is a relief to the millions of working families who’ve been beset by pandemic-spurred layoffs, it really just marks the beginning of the recovery," said Andrew Stettner, a labor expert at The Century Foundation.
"New claims remain 4.5 times pre-pandemic levels," he noted.
But analysts such as Mark Hamrick, an economist at Bankrate, said the improvement was a sign of better things to come, even if full recovery remains a long way off.
"This is likely a sign of even better things to come for the nation’s battered economy and the millions of individuals who are jobless, underemployed or have left the workforce but would like to work," he said.
"More substantial improvement could be seen as early as the forthcoming release of the March employment data, with a pickup in hiring amid the reopening of the economy and more people being vaccinated."
The monthly jobs report for March is set for release next Friday, April 2.
Updated at 9:03 a.m.