The German ichthyologist M.H.C. Lichtenstein described the goliath grouper as Serranus itajara in an 1822 publication regarding the natural history of Brazil.
In an 1884 work, “The fishes of the Florida Keys,” David Starr Jordan proposed the inclusion of the goliath grouper in Epinephelus (Bloch 1793) and this combination remains in use today. Of incidental note is the fact that various authors have incorrectly spelled the specific epithet “itajara” as “itaiara.”
The genus name comes from the Greek epinephelos translated as cloudy. Synonyms of E. itajara include Serranus guasa Poey 1860 and Serranus quinquefasciatus Bocourt 1868.
A number of authors treat the name Promicrops itajara as valid taxonomy for the goliath grouper.
The goliath grouper occurs in the western Atlantic Ocean from Florida south to Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
It is also found in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, from Senegal to Congo although rare in the Canary Islands.
The species is also present in the eastern Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California to Peru.