Recruitment fisheries oceanography studies the impact of the environment on the annual production of young to fished populations (finfish as well as invertebrates). Interannual variation in recruitment is the most important source of biological variability facing fisheries managers. Because most variation in recruitment occurs during early, mainly planktonic stages, recruitment fisheries oceanography usually integrates studies of plankton and physical oceanography. The concepts upon which these studies rest were first expressed in the late 1800s by Spencer Fullerton Baird, the first Commissioner of the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries. These concepts appear to have been independently developed by Johan Hjort and others in northern Europe in the early 1900s, and brought back to the United States through contacts between Hjort and Henry Bryant Bigelow, who passed the ideas to his students at Harvard University, including Lionel Albert Walford and Oscar Elton Sette. Although both Walford and Sette did their initial work in recruitment fisheries oceanography off the US east coast, as federal fisheries scientists, they were sent to California in response to the decline of the sardine fishery, where they incorporated the ideas of Hjort into the programme that has become the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI). The original plan for CalCOFI research was to provide a test of Hjort's ideas. Scientists working with CalCOFI implemented this plan and conducted subsequent research that had its roots in the ideas expressed by Baird. This research was in marked contrast to the fishery-yield orientation of most fisheries research that was being conducted at the time on the west coast of North America, under the dominating influence of William Francis Thompson. In recent years, federal fisheries programmes have investigated recruitment processes of a number of other fish stocks, and considerable effort has been expended toward refining the conceptual framework beyond the hypotheses of Hjort. This paper expands on this history, making note of scientists who were particularly important in the evolution of this discipline. We conclude that although recruitment fisheries oceanography has become a well-established field of study, and many technological advances have been made, the recruitment process is still not well understood and fluctuations in year-class abundance remain a major source of uncertainty in managing marine fisheries.