The number of Americans applying for first-time unemployment benefits fell sharply last week to 326,000, a decrease of 19,000 and also much lower than the number that analysts were expecting, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Analysts polled by expected, on average, initial claims for the seven days between July 21 and July 27 would stay level with the previous week's revised figure of 345,000. By comparison, there were 366,000 first-time claims filed during the comparable week last year, on a seasonally adjusted basis.

For the seven days ended July 27, the four-week moving average, considered a more reliable measure of labor market trends, dropped to 341,250, a decrease of 4,500 from the previous week's revised average of 345,750.

"The total number of people claiming benefits in all programs for the week ending July 13 was 4,695,366, a decrease of 154,140 from the previous week," the Labor Department said in a statement. "There were 5,964,451 persons claiming benefits in all programs in the comparable week in 2012."