Background: Development of the vertebrate head depends on the multipotency and migratory behavior of neural crest derivatives. This cell population is considered a vertebrate innovation and, accordingly, chordate ancestors lacked neural crest counterparts. The identification of neural crest specification genes expressed in the neural plate of basal chordates, in addition to the discovery of pigmented migratory cells in ascidians, has challenged this hypothesis. These new findings revive the debate on what is new and what is ancient in the genetic program that controls neural crest formation. Results: To determine the origin of neural crest genes, we analyzed Phenotype Ontology annotations to select genes that control the development of this tissue. Using a sequential blast pipeline, we phylogenetically classified these genes, as well as those associated with other tissues, in order to define tissue-specific profiles of gene emergence. Of neural crest genes, 9% are vertebrate innovations. Our comparative analyses show that, among different tissues, the neural crest exhibits a particularly high rate of gene emergence during vertebrate evolution. A remarkable proportion of the new neural crest genes encode soluble ligands that control neural crest precursor specification into each cell lineage, including pigmented, neural, glial, and skeletal derivatives. Conclusion: We propose that the evolution of the neural crest is linked not only to the recruitment of ancestral regulatory genes but also to the emergence of signaling peptides that control the increasingly complex lineage diversification of this plastic cell population.