Oral cancer has a low five-year survival rate. Early detection of oral cancer could reduce the mortality and morbidity associated with this disease. Saliva, which can be sampled non-invasively and is less complex than blood, is a good potential source of oral cancer biomarkers. Proteomic analysis of saliva from oral cancer patients and control subjects was performed to identify salivary biomarkers of early stage oral cancer in humans. The protein profile of pooled salivary samples from patients with oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) or OSCC-free control subjects was analyzed using two-dimensional gel electrophoresis (2DE) and matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS) analyses. Potential biomarkers were verified by Western blotting and ELISA assays. Transferrin levels were elevated in the saliva of OSCC patients as determined using 2DE followed by MALDI-TOF MS and confirmed by MALDI-TOF/TOF MS, Western blotting and ELISA. The increase in salivary transferrin levels in OSCC patients strongly correlated with the size and stage of the tumor. The area under the receiver-operating characteristics curves showed that salivary transferrin-based ELISA was highly specific, sensitive and accurate for the early detection of oral cancer. We have identified salivary transferrin as a biomarker for the detection of early stage oral cancer. This finding provides a promising basis for the development of a non-invasive diagnostic test for early stage oral cancer.