But there were no places for either Jonny Wilkinson or England captain Chris Robshaw when the 37-man group was announced at a Middlesex hotel.
Cardiff Blues flanker Warburton has already skippered Wales to a World Cup semi-final and Six Nations Grand Slam during an international career that only began in 2009.
At 24, he becomes Wales' youngest Lions tour captain and the first since Phil Bennett took charge for the 1977 New Zealand trip.
Warren Gatland and his coaching team held their final selection meeting on Monday but Warburton had seen off the captaincy challenges of Irish pair Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll before then.
"Warren gave me a call a week ago on Sunday so it's been nine or 10 days since I found out," Warburton said at the squad announcement.
"It's been the hardest secret I ever had to keep, but I kept it in. It's unbelievable, it's an accolade which very few people can achieve. To be able to do this is an honour."
Former Lion Neil Jenkins, on tour this year as kicking coach, said Warburton reminded him of Martin Johnson, who led the Lions to their last series win over South Africa in 1997.
"Like Johnno, he's not the biggest talker but he leads by example and has everyone's respect," Jenkins said.
Warburton will lead the largest Welsh contingent on tour for 36 years. Bennett was among 16 Welshmen in that 1977 squad and reigning Six Nations champions Wales have a 15-player representation.
England have ten representatives and Ireland nine, but Scotland end up with just three players.
Current England skipper Robshaw misses out as does and Brad Barritt and 2003 World Cup winner Wilkinson.
Wilkinson's impressive display in kicking all Toulon's points in their 24-12 victory Saracens in Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final launched widespread speculation that he would be called up for a third Lions tour but he ruled himself out.
"He wasn't available," Gatland told reporters. "He said he really appreciated the call but that he was committed to Toulon and would not be able to travel with the squad."
The French Top 14 final takes place on the same day as the Lions play the Barbarians in Hong Kong in their opening game on June 1 and Wilkinson's Toulon team are likely to be involved.
His Toulon team-mate Gethin Jenkins did make the Lions squad but he was cleared by the club, for whom he is not first choice.
Asked if he had contacted Wilkinson to include him in the squad, Gatland said: "I wouldn't have made the call otherwise. But we wanted the whole squad to be able to play in Hong Kong and he couldn't make that commitment.
"He said he was struggling with his body and managing things week to week and I think he'd struggle to get through a seven-week tour."
Gatland said, however, that Wilkinson, who turns 34 next month, could still play a part as a potential injury replacement.
Saracens props Mako Vunipola and 2005 Lions tourist Matt Stevens earn front-row selection to accompany Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones and Dan Cole while Dylan Hartley and Geoff Parling are also named in the party.
Stevens, 30, played in the 2007 World Cup final but was given a two-year ban from rugby in 2009 for cocaine use. He returned to action and made the 2011 World Cup squad but ended his 44-Test international career last year.
"The tightheads we have are very similar and Matt can bring something different," said Gatland.
The powerful Vunipola, whose father Fe'ao captained Tonga and played in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, has started only one of his nine England Tests but has proved to be a tremendous impact player, particularly in the loose.
Stuart Hogg is named as a full-back but will also be a the third fly-half/midfield option behind Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell. Billy Twelvetrees, Ian Madigan, James Hook and Greig Laidlaw were all thought to be in the mix.
Irish booker Rory Best is overlooked as is Irish Rugby Union Players' Association's Player of the Year Simon Zebo, with Scotland's Sean Maitland preferred on the wing.
Maitland has enjoyed a whirlwind seven months after uprooting from his native New Zealand to join Glasgow.
Within a handful of games he was called up to the Scotland squad, and despite having scored a try against England on debut and played all five matches in the Six Nations he was the biggest surprise in the Lions squad.
"I am over the moon and a bit speechless at the moment," Maitland told Sky Sports. "It's been a bit of a rollercoaster for me."
Gatland said he finalised the squad only on Monday night.
"We assembled yesterday afternoon as a coaching team, the seventh meeting we have had," he said. "It was a robust debate. There were some healthy discussions.
"The hardest thing about coaching is selection. Ideally you would like to take everyone. Some quality players have missed out. It has been tough, robust, but we feel we have an incredibly talented squad with great depth."
The Lions have not won a series since beating South Africa 16 years ago.
"It's about going on tour and enjoying each other's company, but ultimately this band needs to come back successfully," defence coach Andy Farrell said.
"With 10 games, it's going to build and build. The three Tests will be the ultimate challenge at the end. This is a dream for everyone stepping on that plane. They'll all be super excited. This is a dream come true for them I'm sure."
2013 LIONS SQUAD:
Full-backs: Leigh Halfpenny (Wal), Stuart Hogg (Scot), Rob Kearney (Ire)
Wings: Tommy Bowe (Ire), Alex Cuthbert (Wal), George North (Wal), Sean Maitland (Sco)
Centres: Jonathan Davies (Wal), Brian O'Driscoll (Ire), Jamie Roberts (Wal), Manu Tuilagi (Eng)
Fly-halves: Owen Farrell (Eng), Jonathan Sexton (Ire)
Scrum-halves: Mike Phillips (Wal), Conor Murray (Ire), Ben Youngs (Eng)
Props: Cian Healy (Ire), Gethin Jenkins (Wal), Adam Jones (Wal), Dan Cole (Eng), Matt Stevens (Eng), Mako Vunipola (Eng)
Hookers: Richard Hibbard (Wal), Tom Youngs (Eng). Dylan Hartley (Eng)
Locks: Alun Wyn Jones (Wal), Paul O'Connell (Ire), Richie Gray (Scot), Ian Evans (Wal), Geoff Parling (Eng)
Flankers: Dan Lydiate (Wal), Sean O'Brien (Ire), Sam Warburton (Wal), Tom Croft (Eng), Justin Tipuric (Wal)
No8s: Jamie Heaslip (Irel), Toby Faletau (Wal).
Sat 1 Jun: v Barbarians at Hong Kong Stadium
Wed 5 Jun: v Western Force at Patersons Stadium
Sat 8 Jun: v Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium
Tue 11 Jun: v Comb NSW-Qld Country at Hunter Stadium
Sat 15 Jun: v NSW Waratahs at Allianz Stadium
Tue 18 Jun: v ACT Brumbies at Canberra Stadium
Sat 22 Jun: v Australia at Suncorp Stadium
Tue 25 Jun:v Melbourne Rebels at AAMI Park
Sat 29 Jun: v Australia at Etihad Stadium
Sat 6 Jul :v Australia at ANZ Stadium