Graphene can be transformed from a semimetal into a semiconductor if it is confined into nanoribbons narrower than 10 nm with controlled crystallographic orientation and well-defined armchair edges. However, the scalable synthesis of nanoribbons with this precision directly on insulating or semiconducting substrates has not been possible. Here we demonstrate the synthesis of graphene nanoribbons on Ge(001) via chemical vapour deposition. The nanoribbons are self-aligning 3° from the Ge110 directions, are self-defining with predominantly smooth armchair edges, and have tunable width to <10 nm and aspect ratio to >70. In order to realize highly anisotropic ribbons, it is critical to operate in a regime in which the growth rate in the width direction is especially slow, <5 nm h−1. This directional and anisotropic growth enables nanoribbon fabrication directly on conventional semiconductor wafer platforms and, therefore, promises to allow the integration of nanoribbons into future hybrid integrated circuits.