Focus on the report was heightened as many investors see it as one of the most import economic indicators due to be released ahead of the Fed's meeting in mid-March.
"People are anticipating some fireworks tomorrow. That's the best way to describe the waiting today," said Paul Schatz, president and chief investment officer at Heritage Capital in Woodbridge, Connecticut.
The S&P and the Dow had hit records and the Nasdaq surpassed 5,000 at the start of the week after a strong February performance for U.S. stocks, giving additional reason for investors to take a breather on Thursday.
European news was some help to U.S. markets but higher-than-expected U.S. jobless claims took "a little bit of the wind out of the sails," said Paul Brigandi, managing director of portfolio management at Direxion Funds in New York.
Initial jobless claims rose to 320,000 in the latest week, above the 295,000 estimate. The disappointing numbers came after a weaker-than-expected private payrolls report on Wednesday and ahead of Friday's monthly employment report.
A separate report showed new orders for U.S. factory goods unexpectedly fell in January for a sixth month, a sign of weakness in the manufacturing sector.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> rose 38.82 points, or 0.21 percent, to 18,135.72, the S&P 500 <.SPX> gained 2.51 points, or 0.12 percent, to 2,101.04 and the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> added 15.67 points, or 0.32 percent, to 4,982.81.
Earlier in the day, the European Central Bank raised growth and inflation targets and announced it would start its government bond-buying program of 60 billion euros a month on March 9.
AbbVie (>> AbbVie Inc) said it would buy Pharmacyclics (>> Pharmacyclics, Inc.) for about $21 billion, giving it access to what is expected to be one of the world's top-selling cancer drugs. Pharmacyclics shares jumped 10.3 percent to $254.22 while AbbVie fell 5.7 percent to $56.86.
The news also helped lift other healthcare stocks such as Vertex Pharmaceuticals (>> Vertex Pharmaceuticals Incorporated), which closed up 5.8 percent at $126.96. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (>> Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc) added 3.8 percent to $428.95 and Biogen Idec (>> Biogen Idec Inc) rose 2.8 percent to $425.60.
About 5.7 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 6.5 billion average for the last five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets.
Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,660 to 1,371, for a 1.21-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,560 issues rose and 1,154 fell, for a 1.35-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.
The S&P 500 posted 21 new 52-week highs and 2 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 97 new highs and 42 new lows.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)
By Sinead Carew