BACKGROUND: Appropriate management of the clinically negative (N0) neck in supraglottic laryngeal cancer continues to be an area of controversy in head and neck surgery. Our treatment policy has been aggressive surgical management even in the clinically N0 neck. METHODS: Between 1971 and 1991, 104 patients had the primary diagnosis of supraglottic laryngeal cancer. Ninety of these patients received their treatment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and are the subject of this retrospective review. RESULTS: All neoplasms included in this study were squamous cell cancers. The most common subsite involved with tumor in our series was the epiglottis, followed by the aryepiglottic folds and false cords. Supraglottic laryngectomy was performed of 29% of the cases; the remainder received total laryngectomy. Thirty-six percent of the patients had pathologic stage I/II disease, and 64% had stage III/IV. The 5-year survival rates were 100%, 81%, 73%, and 63% for stages I through IV, respectively. Fifty-seven patients had clinically N0 disease at presentation; of these 34 underwent elective neck dissection, and the remaining 23 patients were observed. Of those patients receiving neck dissection, 30% (n = 10) were found to have histologically positive disease, and of the 23 patients observed, 30% (n = 7) had histologically positive regional (neck) disease. Of the 17 clinically N0 and pathologically N+ patients, 82% (14 of 17) had involvement of level I (submandibular triangle), and 100% had involvement of level II. The incidence of bilateral disease in the clinically N0 patient was 44%. There were no local failures. CONCLUSIONS: There is a high incidence of occult regional disease even in early-stage supraglottic squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx. In the surgical management the clinically N0 neck, we presently recommend bilateral neck dissection of levels I through IV to adequately address those regions at highest risk for occult disease.