Debate over the origin and evolution of vertebrates has occupied biologists and palaeontologists alike for centuries. This debate has been refined by molecular phylogenetics, which has resolved the place of vertebrates among their invertebrate chordate relatives, and that of chordates among their deuterostome relatives. The origin of vertebrates is characterized by wide-ranging genomic, embryologic and phenotypic evolutionary change. Analyses based on living lineages suggest dramatic shifts in the tempo of evolutionary change at the origin of vertebrates and gnathostomes, coincident with whole-genome duplication events. However, the enriched perspective provided by the fossil record demonstrates that these apparent bursts of anatomical evolution and taxic richness are an artefact of the extinction of phylogenetic intermediates whose fossil remains evidence the gradual assembly of crown gnathostome characters in particular. A more refined understanding of the timing, tempo and mode of early vertebrate evolution rests with: (1) better genome assemblies for living cyclostomes; (2) a better understanding of the anatomical characteristics of key fossil groups, especially the anaspids, thelodonts, galeaspids and pituriaspids; (3) tests of the monophyly of traditional groups; and (4) the application of divergence time methods that integrate not just molecular data from living species, but also morphological data and extinct species. The resulting framework will provide for rigorous tests of rates of character evolution and diversification, and of hypotheses of long-term trends in ecological evolution that themselves suffer for lack of quantitative functional tests. The fossil record has been silent on the nature of the transition from jawless vertebrates to the jawed vertebrates that have dominated communities since the middle Palaeozoic. Elucidation of this most formative of episodes likely rests with the overhaul of early vertebrate systematics that we propose, but perhaps more fundamentally with fossil grades that await discovery.