The victory was Oxford's 77th to Cambridge's 81, with a single dead heat over the four miles, 374 yards course.
The winning time of 17 minutes 27 seconds was well outside the 1998 course record, but reflected some chilly and breezy conditions.
"It was a heck of a race," said Oxford's Constantine Louloudis, a bronze medal winner in last year's Olympics for Britain.
"We fancied our chances but Cambridge made it very difficult for us, we had to push hard."
The Dark Blues won in a boat that had been named in honour of their former cox Acer Nethercott - the 35-year-old, who had led Oxford to victory in the 2003 and 2005 editions of the race, died earlier this year following a battle with brain cancer.
Oxford won the toss to decide sides of the river and took the Surrey side, which meant Cambridge had the inside line for the first part of the race.
But it was the Dark Blues who made the stronger start, opening up a half-length lead, and threatening to break into clear water when the river gave them the advantage into the corner.
It took stout resistance from Cambridge to stay in contention by the time they reached the Hammersmith Bridge.
Oxford pushed again as the final bend of the river began to swing in Cambridge's favour, and managed to find clear water, rowing across into the space and negating Cambridge's advantage.
They led at Barnes Bridge with the two boats in single file, before Cambridge moved across the water for one final tilt at a comeback.
The Light Blues gave willing chase, but were ultimately beaten by a length-and-a-half.
"Oxford put together a really fantastic race," said Cambridge president George Nash, another member of Great Britain's bronze-winning team in the men's eight at the Olympics. "Eventually they put in one too many moves, they asked too many questions and we were just unable to come up with the goods.
In the reserve race, Oxford's Isis boat also triumphed, beating Cambridge's Goldie.