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Origin of the White Paper

We all know what a white paper looks like but where did it come from?

As someone who loves writing, I’m always curious to discover where words come from.

One that always bugged me was white papers. Why white? I did some digging around to discover where they came from. Here’s the scoop.

Origin of White Papers

In this article, we’ll look at the history of the white paper, why it was so called, and how it has evolved over the years.

Part of the confusion is that there are two types of white papers:

  • Government – This type of white paper is a format report that outlines a policy, proposal or an issue that affects the general public. In some countries, it is referred to as a ‘parliamentary paper’.

  • Technology – This second type of white paper is authored for software companies, for example, when developing a new technology, positioning a product in the marketplace, or when they wish to develop thought leadership.

How Did White Papers Become White?

One suggestion is that White Papers may have developed from so-called “Blue Papers” in 19th century Britain; the report’s cover was blue. These legislative documents were delivered by Government for discussion in Parliament.

However, if the material for a Blue Paper was too light or informal, it would be published with white covers instead. In time, these were simply referred to as White Papers.

The term has a slightly different meaning in the US, where government white papers refer to Background Report.

Green Papers

In addition to white and blue papers, you can also find green papers. These are most common in Great Britain, Ireland and the United States.

What is a green paper?

This is a specific type of government report that outlines a ‘potential’ line of action. For example, before the law is changed, the Government might issue a green paper describing how the law will be changed, who will be affected, and what one needs to know when it’s introduced.

European Commission Green Papers

When the European Commission publishes a green paper it is intended as a ‘discussion document’ to stimulate debate on a particular topic.

The purpose of a green paper is to encourage interested parties to contribute to the dialogue and share their knowledge, insights or reservations.

Following this round of consultation, it may evolve into a formal white paper where an official set of proposals are clarified.

Canada Green Paper

In Canada, a green paper is an official document sponsored by the Crown. These are discussion documents issued by the government for public debate, not official policy documents.

Famous White Papers

Before technology white papers became synonymous with marketing efforts, certain government white papers became well known, such as:

  • Churchill White Paper 1922 – This clarified how Britain viewed the Balfour Declaration, 1917. That Declaration announced the British intent to aid the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

  • McDonald White Paper of 1939 – This called for the creation of a unified Palestinian State. It suggested that there would be limited Jewish immigration and limited ability to buy land.

  • In Place of Strife – This White Paper was intended to abolish the Indian Act in Canada and recognize First Nations as the same as other minorities in Canada. Until 1969 they were a distinct group.

  • China’s White Paper against Taiwan – China’s release of a “White Paper” threatening military force against Taiwan showed that China disdained Clinton administration pleas to use “restraint” in cross-Straits relations. Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said: “The White Paper comments are unacceptable. And I think many of us are surprised by the bluntness and inappropriateness of this particular challenge.”


It seems that white papers are a by-product of blue papers, which ironically don’t exist anymore. They have first cousins in the Green Paper; I've heard Grey papers mentioned but couldn’t find much information.

Drop me a line if you want to share anytime and I'll update the article.

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