In 1939 Edwin Sutherland gave a presidential address to the American Sociological Society, and it made page 12 of the New York Times.  Nine full paragraphs summarized his talk, reporting that "Dr. Sutherland described present day white collar criminals as 'more suave and deceptive' than last century's 'robber barons' and asserted that 'in many periods more important crime news may be found on the financial pages of the newspapers than the front pages.'"

That speech, on December 27, is usually considered the moment at which the term "white collar crime" was invented.  Of course crimes by elites, crimes of deception,  financial crimes, and crimes in business had been written about at least since Leviticus, Sutherland pulled all these concepts together with one incredibly evocative phrase.  I've often wondered if this story was really as clear cut as the story makes out.  I took a look at the Google books n-gram data for "white collar crime" and "white-collar crime" (full size graph).

"White Collar Crime" Usage Over Time, 1920-2008

The n-gram data certainly seems to be consistent with the story.  The data are far from perfect (we know Google scanned a lot of books but not how they chose them; it seems certain that it was not random; also sometimes they include modern additions or annoations) but the data are always interesting to consider. 

I also was curious about whether the term white-collar crime displaced anything else but that seems not to have been the case, at least in any obvious way. Still, it is interesting to see the rise of the term "financial crime" since the mid-1970. The persistence of "robber barons" (with its own history) is also fascinating since it is also such an evocative term.   (full size graph)

Use of Five Related Terms, 1920-2008

Sutherland's book White Collar Crime was published in 1948 and it is probably fair to attribute to it what is essentially a doubling of the use of the term (if you combine uses with and without the hyphen) at that point. But even before then his work shook things up in the world of sociology and particularly the sociological study of crime. I've written before about how Robert Merton revised his "Social Structure and Anomie" paper in response to Sutherland, and how that revision made the version that appeared in  Social Theory and Social Structure so much more powerful.  The fact that criminology students are often assigned the 1938 version is maddening to me.

I am really interested in the peak that happened in 1980, which is right around the time that all the federal money that paid part of my way through graduate school and funding the work that led to Crimes of the Middle Classes was awarded. That is around the same time as the Conyers report and the founding of the National White Collar Crime Center.

Overall, at least for now, it seems as though the story of Sutherland's invention of white collar crime as both a phrase and a form of classification seems to be true.