Sera from 47 patients with early (< 3 months) arthritis of any type were investigated for anti-RA33, a new anti-nuclear autoantibody characteristic of RA, and the diagnoses determined within the following 8-14 months. In addition, seven patients with unclassified arthritis of > 4 months duration, who were all anti-RA33 positive, were followed for up to 2 years to establish their final rheumatologic diagnoses. Four of 47 early arthritis patients' sera were anti-RA33 positive at the initial evaluation; 14 of these 47 patients (30%) could be classified as RA (according to established criteria) at the final evaluation. All four anti-RA33 positive patients belonged to the RA group (27% of RA patients); of the 33 non-RA patients none had anti-RA33 (P = 0.005). Rheumatoid factor was found in four RA (none of whom had anti-RA33), but also in two non-RA patients (P = 0.05). Finally, the study involved seven additional patients with longer standing, initially unclassified, anti-RA33 positive arthritis: in all of them a diagnosis of RA could be established within 3 years of disease onset. These results suggest that anti-RA33 helps to discriminate early RA from other forms of early arthritis and, in the absence of an established diagnoses, it is predictive of RA. Its discriminative capacity appears to be better than and complementary to that of RF.