ICHTHYOSAURS are extinct marine reptiles, probably belonging to the Diapsida1, that ranged from the Early Triassic to Late Cretaceous2,3. Post-Triassic ichthyosaurs achieved the highest level of aquatic adaptation among reptiles4, with a streamlined body, lunate tail and a dorsal fin, features exemplified today by thunniform (tuna-like) fishes. However, little is known of how such a body plan evolved from a terrestrial diapsid. Here we report the most complete specimen of the oldest known ichthyosaur, Chensaurus, representing a transition between the two body plans. The specimen, which has a partial skin impression, has a small caudal fin, a long and narrow body, and a high presacral vertebral count. These features all suggest an anguilliform swimming mode. Later ichthyosaurs retained the high vertebral count, but overcame the high swimming costs of this plesiomorphy, achieving a rigid tunniform bauplan by evolving discoidal vertebrae, and a deep fusiform body. Chensaurus therefore seems to be an evolutionary intermediate between the shorter-bodied terrestrial stock from which the group evolved, and advanced thunniform ichthyosaurs.