"The most surprising thing is that despite all the brinkmanship over the fiscal cliff and the debate about that, businesses didn't change their hiring plans," Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi told CNBC. "They seemed to slow up their investment spending but not on their hiring, so that's very, very encouraging." (Read More: After 'Horrid' Cliff Deal, Buy Stocks: Dennis Gartman)
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 372,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's figure was revised to show 12,000 more applications than previously reported.
Claims data reported for the week ended Dec. 22 had been artificially depressed by the holidays, which resulted in data for 19 states being estimated.
A Labor Department official said claims data for nine states, including California and Virginia, had been estimated last week because of the Christmas and New Year holidays. This suggests the numbers are subject to revisions next week.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 250 to 360,000. The claims data has no bearing on December's employment report, scheduled for release on Friday.
Employers are expected to have added 150,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, little changed from 146,000 in November, according to a Reuters survey of economists.
Job gains in the first 11 months of last year averaged about 151,000 per month, not enough to significantly lower unemployment. Employers' hesitancy to ramp up hiring had been blamed on the so-called fiscal cliff, a combination of sharp government spending cuts and higher taxes.
Although Congress this week approved a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, the budget problems are far from resolved. That could continue to cast a shadow of uncertainty and hurt job growth.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid increased 44,000 to 3.25 million in the week ended Dec. 22.