paper trail

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Alternative forms[edit]


  • (file)


paper trail (plural paper trails)

  1. (idiomatic) A written record, history, or collection of evidence.
    • 2003, Marsha Collier, eBay Bargain Shopping For Dummies, page 109:
      The only paper trail is the cashed money order, and unless it was cashed at a place where they actually know the payee (like the bank), the money order could have been stolen and cashed by someone else.
    Keep a good paper trail in case anyone asks you why you arrived at that conclusion.
  2. (idiomatic) Records left by a person or organization in the course of activities.
    • 2003, Tony Avent, So You Want to Start a Nursery, page 265:
      With a good paperwork system in place, including a working paper trail, it becomes much easier to manage the flow of relevant information regarding your plants and orders.
    • 2010, Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street:
      And unless that paper trail exonerated you from guilt—or,if not that, supported some alternative explanation that granted you plausible deniability—then sooner or later you'd find yourself on the ass end of a federal indictment.
  3. (by extension) Physical evidence of something that occurred in the past.
    • 2012, Paul Parsons, Science in 100 Key Breakthroughs:
      Beginning in the late 20th century, researchers were able to analyze the mtDNA and Y chromosomes of multiple races around the world, revealing a DNA paper trail that led back to eastern Africa around 200,000 years ago.
    • 2016, Katherine Yaun, Etiquette at School, page 37:
      Even if you delete posts or your digital paper trail, the data stills [sic] exists and can be retrieved later in life.

Usage notes[edit]

The term paper trail is used most often by lawyers and investigative journalists, but it is familiar in general vocabulary. Although it originated in the predigital era, when adherence to its literal sense (involving paper records) was invariable, it is now often used figuratively to refer to any data trail (on paper, electronic, or any mixture of those). The term data trail allows for the general case (independent of medium), and has existed for decades, but is not yet as widely used as paper trail (as of 2017).

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