The low rate of hiring was seen as temporary amid signs that cold weather conditions might have had an impact, said analysts.
Nonfarm payrolls rose only 74,000 last month, the smallest increase since January 2011, the Labor Department said on Friday.
The unemployment rate was the lowest since October 2008 and in part reflected people leaving the workforce.
The step back in hiring was at odds with other employment indicators that have painted an upbeat picture of the jobs market. The data also showed that 38,000 more jobs were added in November than previously reported.
Economists had expected gains of as many as 200,000 jobs last month in light of other upbeat data released earlier in the week.
Figures from consumer spending and trade to industrial production all have suggested the economy ended 2013 on a strong footing and was positioned to gain even more strength this year.
The labour force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one fell 0.2 percentage point to 62.8%. This in part explained the decline in unemployment.