He said he had fought for fiscal discipline and limited government, while making tough choices along the way.
"They said I might be a one-term governor, and I am," Corbett said. "But I am proud of what we did."
Exit polls that showed Corbett losing across the board - among men, women, all age groups except those over 65, and all income levels. He also was losing in every region of the state but central Pennsylvania.
When he takes office in January, Wolf will likely face a Republican-controlled legislature and a budget deficit as he tries to make good on a promise to dramatically increase the state government's share of public school costs.
Running on the promise of a "fresh start," Wolf poured $10 million of his own money into his campaign for the Democratic nomination, swamping better-known rivals.
He hammered Corbett for cuts to state education spending early in his administration, while passing out business tax cuts and refusing to tax the value of natural gas extracted from Marcellus Shale formation, which underlies much of the state. In addition, Wolf argued, job growth was anemic compared with the rest of the nation - putting the lie to supply-side economic theory, he said.
Exit polls suggested the Democrat scored on the jobs issue: 90 percent of voters interviewed said they remain worried about the economy, and Wolf led among those voters.
All told, candidates and independent interest groups spent at least $70 million on the campaign in 2014. That included $47.4 million tallied by the Center for Public Integrity, for about 50,000 television ads on broadcast and national cable channels in Pennsylvania.
Wolf, 65, ran his family's York County building-supplies company for nearly three decades, building it into what it says is the nation's largest supplier of kitchen cabinets while sharing profits with workers. He also served for 18 months as state revenue secretary in the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell.
Wolf has a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served in the Peace Corps in India as a young man.
And he drives a Jeep - a fact reinforced over and over in his folksy TV ads. His initial ad campaign vaulted him to victory over better-known Democrats in the primary.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Democratic candidate - with a horde of reporters, camera crews, and staffers in his wake - swept in and out of his Mount Wolf polling place in about a minute.
Wolf said he was heading home for dinner with family. "We're having chili," he said.
Corbett, 65, was attorney general for two terms before winning election by nine percentage points in 2010, a Republican wave year. As attorney general he sent a series of state lawmakers and top aides to prison on corruption charges.
Before Corbett, the last Pennsylvania governor to lose reelection was William Bigler in 1854, after two years in office. A Democrat, Bigler ran afoul of abolitionist sentiment after supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed slavery in new western territories.
After a constitutional convention in 1874, Pennsylvania governors' terms went to four years, but they could not succeed themselves. Still another constitution in 1968 allowed two four-year terms. Corbett is the first to lose under those rules.
Wolf's running mate was State Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia, who will replace Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, a former Bucks County commissioner.
Stack has said he might keep his state Senate seat. At his victory party in the Sheet Metal Workers hall in South Philadelphia, he said he might do so for a short period and without accepting two salaries.
He also said, "We need to invest in public education, or we are doomed."
School funding was an issue Democrats pounded. Wolf voters across the region mentioned it Tuesday.
"I'm just disgusted with Corbett's education stances and the way he's robbed Philadelphia schools,' said Jim Kurtz, 58, a nurse who voted at a polling place on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia where turnout exceeded 50 percent.
"My children go to Philadelphia schools, so I know. I can feel it," Kurtz said. "Wolf is no panacea, but at least he's made statements that he cares about the schools. But we'll have to keep pressure on him."
Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Amy Worden, Jessica Parks, and Ben Finley.