The Origin of White Papers

So I was watching the movie Tropical Thunder and a random thought popped into my head. Where did the term white paper come from?  I wish there was some clever analogy I could draw between the term and the movie that led me to such philosophical noodling, but no such luck.

The phrase white paper is part of my daily vernacular, and I realized I don’t even really know what it means. So I went to the font of all thing obscure — Google — which in turn led me to, of course, Wikipedia.

According to Wikipedia, the definition is:

A white paper is an authoritative report or guide that often addresses problems and how to solve them. White papers are used to educate readers and help people make decisions. They are used in politics and business. They can also be a government report outlining policy.

As you can see in the definition above, the government bandies about the term as well, and while I’m not explicitly pointing my finger at the government as the source, I believe we can credit them in this case.

It seems the British actually dubbed the term white paper, but it’s the informal variant of the more common “command paper,” which is used to lay out government policy. Interesting, the British also publish “green papers” (a.k.a. “consultation documents”), which propose strategy and even, on occasion, take public opinion into consideration. That’s a novel concept and a possible precursor to social media, but that’s a topic for another day.

Heck, Churchill even produced a couple white papers. Because they proposed topics of international importance that are still controversial today, I think it may be untoward to compare them to those that have become common parlance in the business world.

In fact, according to Wikipedia, business folks didn’t start dubbing their marketing treatises as white papers until the 1990s.

So while the industry uses the phrase “white paper,” many of whom without knowing the origin of the phrase, I may start using “command paper” in reference to my writing. That should garner me some more respect.

Craig Rosenberg is the Funnelholic. He loves sales, marketing, and things that drive revenue. Follow him on Google+ or Twitter

  • “..A white paper is an authoritative report or guide..”

    Unfortunately, it seems to me that this has been lost. Most White Papers that I have seen are simply advertorials on how the particular vendor can solve all of your woes!

    I have no tolerance of being told to”do” something by the company that “does” that something!



  • I saw a documentary recently on Genghis Khan, and when me finally became the most powerful warlord in Asia, he had all of his rules for his lands written in a blue book; but what caught my attention was that this book contained “white paper”, so it is conceivable that the phrase was used here first…

    Check out this link on Google Books…

    It might not be where the phrase originated, but the nature and purpose of hm book does not seem incongruous with our modern day idea of a white paper…



  • As far as I know the term “white book” (“white paper”) originally has nothing to do with the color white. Instead, it refers to “wise”, alternatively maybe to “wit” (attestor). Thus, “white books” as they were written eg. by the israelite prophets in the last millenium before christ, originally referred to either “books of knowledge” / “books of presages” or “books of witnesses”.

    This denomination of a very special kind of literature later on was misunderstood as a color name, but still associataing its content correctly with such attributes as encyclopedic knowledge, sincerity, impartiality etc., and thus creating the chance to contrast such a content with its contraries, i.d. “black” books etc. that usually describe bad behaviour or contain lists of deprecated or rejected things, people or even institutions.