Structure–activity relationships built on descriptors of bulk and bulk-terminated surfaces are the basis for the rational design of electrocatalysts. However, electrochemically driven surface transformations complicate the identification of such descriptors. Here we demonstrate how the as-prepared surface composition of (001)-terminated LaNiO3 epitaxial thin films dictates the surface transformation and the electrocatalytic activity for the oxygen evolution reaction. Specifically, the Ni termination (in the as-prepared state) is considerably more active than the La termination, with overpotential differences of up to 150 mV. A combined electrochemical, spectroscopic and density-functional theory investigation suggests that this activity trend originates from a thermodynamically stable, disordered NiO2 surface layer that forms during the operation of Ni-terminated surfaces, which is kinetically inaccessible when starting with a La termination. Our work thus demonstrates the tunability of surface transformation pathways by modifying a single atomic layer at the surface and that active surface phases only develop for select as-synthesized surface terminations.