N-doped carbon materials are considered as next-generation oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) catalysts for fuel cells due to their prolonged stability and low cost. However, the underlying mechanism of these catalysts has been only insufficiently identified, preventing the rational design of high-performing catalysts. Here, we show that the first electron is transferred into O 2 molecules at the outer Helmholtz plane (ET-OHP) over a long range. This is in sharp contrast to the conventional belief that O2 adsorption must precede the ET step and thus that the active site must possess as good an O2 binding character as that which occurs on metallic catalysts. Based on the ET-OHP mechanism, the location of the electrode potential dominantly characterizes the ORR activity. Accordingly, we demonstrate that the electrode potential can be elevated by reducing the graphene size and/or including metal impurities, thereby enhancing the ORR activity, which can be transferred into single-cell operations with superior stability.