Striking conservation in various organisms suggests that cellular nucleic acid binding protein (CNBP) plays a fundamental biological role across different species. Recently, it was reported that CNBP is required for forebrain formation during chick and mouse embryogenesis. In this study, we have used the zebrafish model system to expand and contextualize the basic understanding of the molecular mechanisms of CNBP activity during vertebrate head development. We show that zebrafish cnbp is expressed in the anterior CNS in a similar fashion as has been observed in early chick and mouse embryos. Using antisense morpholino oligonucleotide knockdown assays, we show that CNBP depletion causes forebrain truncation while trunk development appears normal. A substantial reduction in cell proliferation and an increase in cell death were observed in the anterior regions of cnbp morphant embryos, mainly within the cnbp expression territory. In situ hybridization assays show that CNBP depletion does not affect CNS patterning while it does cause depletion of neural crest derivatives. Our data suggest an essential role for CNBP in mediating neural crest expansion by controlling proliferation and cell survival rather than via a cell fate switch during rostral head development. This possible role of CNBP may not only explain the craniofacial anomalies observed in zebrafish but also those reported for mice and chicken and, moreover, demonstrates that CNBP plays an essential and conserved role during vertebrate head development.