Development, differentiation and response to environmental stimuli are characterized by sequential changes in cellular state initiated by the de novo binding of regulated transcriptional factors to their cognate genomic sites. The mechanism whereby a given regulatory factor selects a limited number of in vivo targets from a myriad of potential genomic binding sites is undetermined. Here we show that up to 95% of de novo genomic binding by the glucocorticoid receptor, a paradigmatic ligand-activated transcription factor, is targeted to preexisting foci of accessible chromatin. Factor binding invariably potentiates chromatin accessibility. Cell-selective glucocorticoid receptor occupancy patterns appear to be comprehensively predetermined by cell-specific differences in baseline chromatin accessibility patterns, with secondary contributions from local sequence features. The results define a framework for understanding regulatory factor-genome interactions and provide a molecular basis for the tissue selectivity of steroid pharmaceuticals and other agents that intersect the living genome.