The assembly of genes encoding antigen receptors is regulated by developmental changes in chromatin that either permit or deny access to a single variable-(diversity)-joining recombinase. These changes are guided by transcriptional promoters and enhancers, which serve as accessibility-control elements in antigen-receptor loci. The function of each accessibility-control element and the factors they recruit to remodel chromatin remain obscure. Here we show that the recruitment of SWI-SNF chromatin-remodeling complexes compensated for the accessibility-control element function of a promoter but not an enhancer of the T cell receptor-β locus (Tcrb). Loss of SWI-SNF function in thymocytes inactivated recombinase targets at the endogenous Tcrb locus. Thus, initiation of Tcrb gene assembly and T cell development is contingent on the recruitment of SWI-SNF to promoters, which exposes gene segments to variable-(diversity)-joining recombinase.