Understanding when severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) emerged is critical to evaluating our current approach to monitoring novel zoonotic pathogens and understanding the failure of early containment and mitigation efforts for COVID-19. We used a coalescent framework to combine retrospective molecular clock inference with forward epidemiological simulations to determine how long SARS-CoV-2 could have circulated before the time of the most recent common ancestor of all sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes. Our results define the period between mid-October and mid-November 2019 as the plausible interval when the first case of SARS-CoV-2 emerged in Hubei province, China. By characterizing the likely dynamics of the virus before it was discovered, we show that more than two-thirds of SARS-CoV-2–like zoonotic events would be self-limited, dying out without igniting a pandemic. Our findings highlight the shortcomings of zoonosis surveillance approaches for detecting highly contagious pathogens with moderate mortality rates.