Pathological processes involved in the initiation of rheumatoid synovitis remain unclear. We undertook the present study to identify immune and stromal processes that are present soon after the clinical onset of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) by assessing a panel of T cell, macrophage, and stromal cell related cytokines and chemokines in the synovial fluid of patients with early synovitis. Synovial fluid was aspirated from inflamed joints of patients with inflammatory arthritis of duration 3 months or less, whose outcomes were subsequently determined by follow up. For comparison, synovial fluid was aspirated from patients with acute crystal arthritis, established RA and osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid factor activity was blocked in the synovial fluid samples, and a panel of 23 cytokines and chemokines measured using a multiplex based system. Patients with early inflammatory arthritis who subsequently developed RA had a distinct but transient synovial fluid cytokine profile. The levels of a range of T cell, macrophage and stromal cell related cytokines (e.g. IL-2, IL-4, IL-13, IL-17, IL-15, basic fibroblast growth factor and epidermal growth factor) were significantly elevated in these patients within 3 months after symptom onset, as compared with early arthritis patients who did not develop RA. In addition, this profile was no longer present in established RA. In contrast, patients with non-rheumatoid persistent synovitis exhibited elevated levels of interferon-gamma at initiation. Early synovitis destined to develop into RA is thus characterized by a distinct and transient synovial fluid cytokine profile. The cytokines present in the early rheumatoid lesion suggest that this response is likely to influence the microenvironment required for persistent RA.