How did evolution generate the extraordinary diversity of vertebrates on land? Zero species are known prior to ~380 million years ago, and more than 30,000 are present today. An expansionist model suggests this was achieved by large and unbounded increases, leading to substantially greater diversity in the Recent than at any time in the geological past. This model contrasts starkly with empirical support for constrained diversification in marine animals, suggesting different macroevolutionary processes on land and in the sea. We quantify patterns of vertebrate standing diversity on land during the Mesozoic–early Paleogene interval, applying sample-standardization to a global fossil dataset containing 27,260 occurrences of 4,898 non-marine tetrapod species. Our results show a highly stable pattern of Mesozoic tetrapod diversity at global, regional and local levels, underpinned by a weakly positive, but near-zero, long-term net diversification rate over 190 million years. Diversity of non-flying terrestrial tetrapods less than doubled over this interval, despite the origins of exceptionally diverse extant groups within mammals, squamates, amphibians and dinosaurs. Therefore, although speciose groups of modern tetrapods have Mesozoic origins, rates of Mesozoic diversification inferred from the fossil record are slow compared to those inferred from molecular phylogenies. An apparent four-fold expansion of species richness after the Cretaceous/Paleogene (K/Pg) boundary deserves further examination in light of potential taxonomic biases, but is consistent with the hypothesis that global environmental disturbances such as mass extinction events can rapidly adjust limits to diversity by restructuring ecosystems, and suggests that the gradualistic evolutionary diversification of tetrapods was punctuated by brief but dramatic episodes of radiation.