She is named after Spanish explorer Juan SebastiÃ¡n Elcano, captain of Ferdinand Magellans last exploratory fleet. The ship also carries the de Elcano coat of arms, which was granted to the family by Emperor Charles I following Elcanos return in 1522 from Magellans global expedition. The coat of arms is a terraqueous globe with the motto "Primus Circumdedisti Me" (meaning: "First to circumnavigate me").
The Juan SebastiÃ¡n de Elcano was built in 1927 in Cadiz, Spain, and her hull was designed by the Spanish naval architect and engineer Juan Antonio Aldecoa y Arias in the Echevarrieta y Larrinaga shipyard in Cadiz. After the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic in April 1931 it became part of the Spanish Republican Navy.