Surface redox-active centres in transition-metal oxides play a key role in determining the efficacy of electrocatalysts. The extreme sensitivity of surface redox states to temperatures, to gas pressures and to electrochemical reaction conditions renders them difficult to investigate by conventional surface-science techniques. Here we report the direct observation of surface redox processes by surface-sensitive, operando X-ray absorption spectroscopy using thin-film iron and cobalt perovskite oxides as model electrodes for elevated-temperature oxygen incorporation and evolution reactions. In contrast to the conventional view that the transition metal cations are the dominant redox-active centres, we find that the oxygen anions near the surface are a significant redox partner to molecular oxygen due to the strong hybridization between oxygen 2p and transition metal 3d electronic states. We propose that a narrow electronic state of significant oxygen 2p character near the Fermi level exchanges electrons with the oxygen adsorbates. This result highlights the importance of surface anion-redox chemistry in oxygen-deficient transition-metal oxides.