A broader measure of unemployment that includes discouraged and underemployed workers held steady at 13.1 percent.
Economists Mark Zandi and Austan Goolsbee said on CNBC that the numbers shouldn't be taken seriously and likely will be revised higher in future counts.
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"A gain of only 74,000 new jobs in December stands in contrast to the strengthening posted in other major economic data, suggesting the dip in hiring might prove temporary," Kathy Bostjancic, director of macroeconomic analysis at The Conference Board, said in a statement.
Consensus seemed to get around a theory that some rough December weather dampened hiring.
"It's hard to build a house or office building when it's 15 or 20 below. You physically can't do it," Labor Secretary Tom Perez said on CNBC. " Because the materials in that cold weather don't stick, so weather is undeniably a factor."
(Read more: Jack Ablin: Why it may be time to raise the minimum wage)
Those not at work due to bad weather numbered 273,000 for the month, some 92,000 above the five-year average, analysts at Strategas said in a report. Even adding those workers in, though, leaves the number well below consensus.
One other notable condition: The reference point for the report was the week ended Dec. 12, which showed jobless claims spiking to 380,000. Claims have declined since then and the week was written off to "seasonal distortions" that likely worked their way into Friday's report, Bespoke Investment Group said in a note.
Markets had been anticipating a good number before the release,and stocks turned negative in morning trade.
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If stocks finish lower Friday, it would break an eight-month winning streak on "Jobs Friday."