The term "white paper" originated in 1899 and has various definitions,
but is generally considered to mean a detailed and/or authoritative
report on a major issue or subject. While some speculation has it that
high-quality paper being an expensive commodity in the early 19th
Century, drafts were written on darker, cheaper paper, and white paper
was reserved for final versions, the answer is a somewhat more
To quote from "The Word Detetective on the Web" an online version of
"The Word Detective" newspaper column written by Evan Morris,
"...the term originally arose in the context of... 'Blue Papers' in
the 19th century (so-called because of their blue covers) were
humongous policy or legislative statements delivered by the British
government for consideration by Parliament. But if a report or
statement was too brief to be rightly considered a 'Blue Paper,' it
was issued with white covers, and, with uncommon logic, called a
'White Paper.' ...Americans adopted the term and have been using
'white paper' since World War II to mean 'background report,'..."
Morris' full column on the subject can be found at...
Scroll to the bottom of the page to a heading titled, "With Footnotes"
You might also find interesting this excerpt taken from a guide to
describe British Parliamentary documents that I found at the Michigan
State University online library...
"One may see or hear references to white paper, green paper, or blue
paper. White papers are issued by the Government as command papers and
are statements of policy. They may also be the Government's responses
to the final reports of select committees' work efforts. Green papers
set out for discussion proposals for legislation which are still in
the formative stage. They are consultative documents and may be issued
as either command papers or as non-parliamentary publications. Blue
papers are documents brought before Parliament to enable the members
to formulate judgement on foreign policy matters. If printed by HMSO,
these documents may be included in the Sessional Papers."
Search strategy: ""origin of white paper"; "blue papers" "white paper"