The formation of the vertebrate body plan begins with the differentiation of cells into three germ layers: ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm. Cells in the endoderm give rise to the epithelial lining of the digestive tract, associated glands and respiratory system. One of the fundamental problems in developmental biology is to elucidate how these three primary germ layers are established from the homologous population of cells in the early blastomere. To address this question, ectoderm and mesoderm development have been extensively analyzed, but study of endoderm development has only begun relatively recently. In this review, we focus on the ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ of endoderm development in four vertebrate model organisms: the zebrafish, Xenopus, chick and mouse. We discuss the classical fate mapping of the endoderm and the more recent progress in characterizing its induction, segregation and regional specification.