Nearly half of the global seafloor is overlain by sediment oxygenated to the basement. Yet, despite the availability of oxygen to fuel aerobic respiration, organic carbon persists over million-year timescales. Identifying the controls on organic carbon preservation requires an improved understanding of the composition and distribution of organic carbon within deep oligotrophic marine sediments. Here we show that organic carbon in sediment from the oligotrophic North Atlantic and South Pacific is low (<0.1%), yet stable to depths of 25 m and ages of 24 million years. This organic carbon is not bound in biomass and has a low carbon/nitrogen ratio. X-ray imaging and spectroscopic analyses reveal that the chemical composition of this old, deep organic carbon is dominated (40–60%) by amide and carboxylic carbon with a proteinaceous nature. We posit that organic carbon persists in oxic oligotrophic sediment through a combination of protective processes that involve adsorption to mineral surfaces and physical inaccessibility to the heterotrophic community. We estimate that up to 1.6 × 1022 g of organic carbon are sequestered on million-year timescales in oxic pelagic sediment, which exceeds current estimates of the total global sediment organic carbon and constitutes an important, previously overlooked carbon reservoir.