Cranial sensory placodes are focused areas of the head ectoderm of vertebrates that contribute to the development of the cranial sense organs and their associated ganglia. Placodes have long been considered a key character of vertebrates, and their evolution is proposed to have been essential for the evolution of an active predatory lifestyle by early vertebrates. Despite their importance for understanding vertebrate origins, the evolutionary origin of placodes has remained obscure. Here, we use a panel of molecular markers from the Six, Eya, Pax, Dach, FoxI, COE and POUIV gene families to examine the tunicate Ciona intestinalis for evidence of structures homologous to vertebrate placodes. Our results identify two domains of Ciona ectoderm that are marked by the genetic cascade that regulates vertebrate placode formation. The first is just anterior to the brain, and we suggest this territory is equivalent to the olfactory/adenohypophyseal placodes of vertebrates. The second is a bilateral domain adjacent to the posterior brain and includes cells fated to form the atrium and atrial siphon of adult Ciona. We show this bares most similarity to placodes fated to form the vertebrate acoustico-lateralis system. We interpret these data as support for the hypothesis that sensory placodes did not arise de novo in vertebrates, but evolved from pre-existing specialised areas of ectoderm that contributed to sensory organs in the common ancestor of vertebrates and tunicates.