Many viruses of eukaryotes that use mRNA cap-dependent translation strategies have evolved alternate mechanisms to generate the mRNA cap compared to their hosts. The most divergent of these mechanisms are those used by nonsegmented negative-sense (NNS) RNA viruses, which evolved a capping enzyme that transfers RNA onto GDP, rather than GMP onto the 5′ end of the RNA. Working with vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), a prototype of the NNS RNA viruses, we show that mRNA cap formation is further distinct, requiring a specific as-acting signal in the RNA. Using recombinant VSV, we determined the function of the eight conserved positions of the gene-start sequence in mRNA initiation and cap formation. Alterations to this sequence compromised mRNA initiation and separately formation of the GpppA cap structure. These studies provide genetic and biochemical evidence that the mRNA capping apparatus of VSV evolved an RNA capping machinery that functions in a sequence-specific manner.