SUMMARY The fossil record provides unique clues about the primitive pattern of lobed fins, the precursors of digit-bearing limbs. Such information is vital for understanding the evolutionary transition from fish fins to tetrapod limbs, and it guides the choice of model systems for investigating the developmental changes underpinning this event. However, the evolutionary preconditions for tetrapod limbs remain unclear. This uncertainty arises from an outstanding gap in our knowledge of early lobed fins: there are no fossil data that record primitive pectoral fin conditions in coelacanths, one of the three major groups of sarcopterygian (lobe-finned) fishes. A new fossil from the Middle–Late Devonian of Wyoming preserves the first and only example of a primitive coelacanth pectoral fin endoskeleton. The strongly asymmetrical skeleton of this fin corroborates the hypothesis that this is the primitive sarcopterygian pattern, and that this pattern persisted in the closest fish-like relatives of land vertebrates. The new material reveals the specializations of paired fins in the modern coelacanth, as well as in living lungfishes. Consequently, the context in which these might be used to investigate evolutionary and developmental relationships between vertebrate fins and limbs is changed. Our data suggest that primitive actinopterygians, rather than living sarcopterygian fishes and their derived appendages, are the most informative comparators for developmental studies seeking to understand the origin of tetrapod limbs.