The US Geological Survey said the tremor measured 5.8 on the Richter scale and was centered near Richmond, Virginia.
Witnesses reported feeling the movement as far north as New York and as far south as South Carolina. The quake lasted for 1-2 minutes by some reports. Others said there was a large initial tremor followed by smaller ones.
In the ABC11 newsroom in Durham, staffers felt a rocking sensation, but nothing fell from shelves or walls.
There were no immediate reports of major damage, but some callers said things toppled over in their homes.
"I was sitting on my couch in my home, near Pittsboro, and all of a sudden felt the couch start to shake. Looked at my water glass and it was shaking too," said Donna Sich in an email from Siler City.
Julie Jarrell Bailey in Durham wrote she was in the "midst of a staff meeting when the entire building shook so hard we had to quickly exit the building. Lasted for less than a minute. No damage but a few rattled nerves!"
"At first I thought it was the washing machine on super unbalanced," wrote Susan Piron.
At Super Sod on Farmers Market Drive in Raleigh, a surveillance camera shook.
Emergency officials said 911 centers were being flooded with calls. They asked residents not to call unless they had a genuine emergency.
Some office buildings in downtown Raleigh were evacuated temporarily.
Many people reported that they were unable to reach family and friends on cell phones because of the large volume of phone calls jamming up cell phone networks.
Verizon Wireless and AT&T said their networks were congested as the quake sent people scrambling for the phones.
Verizon Wireless spokesman Tom Pica said there was no damage to the company's equipment. He said the crush of phone calls made it hard for some customers to get through for about 20 minutes after the quake but he said the congestion appeared to be clearing. Sprint said some customers experienced delays.
Earthquakes are not unusual in North Carolina, but it is rare that they're as strongly felt as Tuesday's tremor.
The USGS says on its website that the most property damage in North Carolina ever attributed to an earthquake was caused by the August 31, 1886, Charleston, South Carolina, shock. About 60 people were killed in the epicentral area and a number of places in North Carolina had chimneys thrown down, fallen plaster and cracked walls.
The USGS said the earthquake Tuesday was half a mile deep and centered near Louisa, Va., about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. Shaking was felt at the White House and all over the East Coast, as far south as Chapel Hill Parts of the Pentagon, White House and Capitol were evacuated.
Two nuclear reactors at the North Anna Power Station in the same county as the epicenter were automatically taken off line by safety systems around the time of the earthquake, said Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
At the Pentagon in northern Virginia, a low rumbling built and built to the point that the building was shaking. People ran into the corridors of the government's biggest building and as the shaking continued there were shouts of "Evacuate! Evacuate!"
The U.S. Park Service evacuated and closed all National Mall monuments and memorials. At Reagan National Airport outside Washington, ceiling tiles fell during a few seconds of shaking. Authorities announced it was an earthquake and all flights were put on hold.
In New York, the 26-story federal courthouse in lower Manhattan began swaying and hundreds of people were seen leaving the building. Court officers weren't letting people back in.
The quake came a day after an earthquake in Colorado toppled groceries off shelves and caused minor damage to homes in the southern part of the state and in northern New Mexico. No injuries were reported as aftershocks continued Tuesday.
In Charleston, W.Va., hundreds of workers left the state Capitol building and employees at other downtown office buildings were asked to leave temporarily.
"The whole building shook," said Jennifer Bundy, a spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court. "You could feel two different shakes. Everybody just kind of came out on their own."
In Ohio, where office buildings swayed in Columbus and Cincinnati and the press box at the Cleveland Indians' Progressive Field shook. At least one building near the Statehouse was evacuated in downtown Columbus.
In downtown Baltimore, the quake sent office workers into the streets, where lamp posts swayed slightly as they called family and friends to check in.
Social media site Twitter lit up with reports of the earthquake from people using the site up and down the U.S. eastern seaboard.
"People pouring out of buildings and onto the sidewalks and Into Farragut Park in downtown DC...," tweeted Republican strategist Kevin Madden.
"did you feel earthquake in ny? It started in richmond va!" tweeted Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group.
John Gurlach, air traffic controller at the Morgantown Municipal Airport was in a 40-foot-tall tower when the earth trembled.
"There were two of us looking at each other saying, `What's that?"' he said, even as a commuter plane was landing. "It was noticeably shaking. It felt like a B-52 unloading."
Immediately, the phone rang from the nearest airport in Clarksburg, and a computer began spitting out green strips of paper -- alerts from other airports in New York and Washington issuing ground stops "due to earthquake."