The conformational properties of trypsin-like proteases and their zymogen forms remain controversial because of a lack of sufficient information on their free forms. Specifically, it is unclear whether the free protease is zymogen-like and shifts to its mature form upon a ligand-induced fit or exists in multiple conformations in equilibrium from which the ligand selects the optimal fit via conformational selection. Here we report the results of 19F NMR measurements that reveal the conformational properties of a protease and its zymogen precursor in the free form. Using the trypsin-like, clotting protease thrombin as a relevant model system, we show that its conformation is quite different from that of its direct zymogen precursor prethrombin-2 and more similar to that of its fully active Na+-bound form. The results cast doubts on recent hypotheses that free thrombin is zymogen-like and transitions to protease-like forms upon ligand binding. Rather, they validate the scenario emerged from previous findings of X-ray crystallography and rapid kinetics supporting a pre-existing equilibrium between open (E) and closed (E*) forms of the active site. In this scenario, prethrombin-2 is more dynamic and exists predominantly in the E* form, whereas thrombin is more rigid and exists predominantly in the E form. Ligand binding to thrombin takes place exclusively in the E form without significant changes in the overall conformation. In summary, these results disclose the structural architecture of the free forms of thrombin and prethrombin-2, consistent with an E*-E equilibrium and providing no evidence that free thrombin is zymogen-like.