The number of Americans applying for first-time unemployment benefits fell sharply in the latest week, to 334,000, the U.S. Labor Department announced Thursday -- a decrease of 24,000 and much lower than the consensus estimate.

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expected initial claims to fall to 345,000, below the previous week's revised figure of 358,000. By comparison, there were 382,000 first-time claims filed during the comparable week last year (seasonally adjusted).

Meanwhile, the less-volatile four-week moving average, considered a more reliable measure of labor market trends, dropped to 346,000, a decrease of 5,250 from the previous week's revised average of 351,250.

"The total number of people claiming benefits in all programs for the week ending June 29 was 4,519,501 -- a decrease of 1,903 from the previous week," the Labor Department said in a statement. "There were 5,753,820 persons claiming benefits in all programs in the comparable week in 2012."