Data sets used to monitor the Earth's climate indicate that the surface of the Earth warmed from ~1910 to 1940, cooled slightly from ~1940 to 1970, and then warmed markedly from ~1970 onward. The weak cooling apparent in the middle part of the century has been interpreted in the context of a variety of physical factors, such as atmosphere-ocean interactions and anthropogenic emissions of sulphate aerosols. Here we call attention to a previously overlooked discontinuity in the record at 1945, which is a prominent feature of the cooling trend in the mid-twentieth century. The discontinuity is evident in published versions of the global-mean temperature time series, but stands out more clearly after the data are filtered for the effects of internal climate variability. We argue that the abrupt temperature drop of ~0.3°C in 1945 is the apparent result of uncorrected instrumental biases in the sea surface temperature record. Corrections for the discontinuity are expected to alter the character of mid-twentieth century temperature variability but not estimates of the century-long trend in global-mean temperatures.