Salicylic acid (SA) acts as an endogenous signal molecule responsible for inducing abiotic stress tolerance in plants. In this study, the role of SA in improving drought tolerance in two maize cultivars (Zea mays L.) differing in their tolerance to drought was evaluated. The plants were regularly watered per pot and grown until the grain filling stage (R2) under a rainout shelter. At stage R2, parts of the plants were treated with SA, after which drought stress was applied. Leaf samples were harvested on the 10th and 17th days of the drought. Some antioxidant enzyme activity, such as the superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), ascorbate peroxidase (APX), glutathione reductase (GR), monodehydroascorbate reductase (MDHAR), dehydroascorbate reductase (DHAR), hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and malondialdehyde (MDA) content, was measured during the drought period. Exogenous SA prevented water loss and delayed leaf rolling in comparison with control leaves in both cultivars. As a consequence of drought stress, lipid peroxidation, measured in terms of malondialdehyde content, was prevented by SA. SA pretreatment induced all antioxidant enzyme activities, and to a greater extent than the control leaves, during drought. SA also caused a reduction in the ascorbate (ASC) and glutathione (GSH) content in two maize cultivars. The H2O2 level was higher in SA pretreated plants than the controls in both cultivars. Pretreatment with SA further enhanced the activities of antioxidant enzymes and the concentrations of non-enzymatic antioxidants in the tolerant cultivar compared with the sensitive cultivar. Results suggested that exogenous SA could help reduce the adverse effects of drought stress and might have a key role in providing tolerance to stress by decreasing water loss and inducing the antioxidant system in plants with leaf rolling, an alternative drought protection mechanism.