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I've seen "digital paper trail" and "electronic paper trail", but I'm wondering if there is a better (more elegant, widely used?) term for a record of electronic communication that would have been called a "paper trail" in the olden days ...

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    wouldn't mind an explanation of the close vote, as I'm fairly new to this site ...
    – Ben Bolker
    Apr 19 at 15:28
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    I remember using "email trail", but I don't know how valid that is. Apr 19 at 18:53
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    "email trail" or "e trail" are phrases I have used in the past. Apr 20 at 2:12
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    "Covering your ass" Apr 21 at 15:16
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    Maybe of interest: a plot of the frequency of some of the top answers' suggestions books.google.com/ngrams/… Apr 22 at 1:05

7 Answers 7

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The correspondence trail...

...was in use long before anyone might have been using email instead of paper-based "snail mail".

I'm not entirely certain, because I can't find an actual definition (just the above link to about 100 written instances preceded by the definite article alone), but I think in principle a correspondence trail could include recorded phone conversations as well. That's to say, in this context at least, conversation is a subset of correspondence.

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I would just call it a paper trail despite the absence of actual paper. There are many cases where we have kept the old word and simply apply it to the modern equivalent of an older concept. For example, calling an email mail; or being on board a ship or airplane, even though they are likely made of metal and plastic and no longer have any boards. I still read the paper despite doing so on a screen. And I still sign the paperwork even though these days there might not be any actual paper involved. Does anyone still have an actual, physical bell in their doorbell? Is your alarm clock a clock or is it actually an app on your phone? If you say folder what are the chances you mean a physical binder and not a directory on a computer file system?

The case for paper trail is even stronger since the definitions I can find online do allow for wriggle room:

  • Merriam-Webster:

    documents (such as financial records) from which a person's actions may be traced or opinions learned.

    Document is a term that is very commonly used to refer to electronic, well, documents. Indeed, M-W itself includes that meaning in its definition of the word:

    3 : a computer file containing information input by a computer user and usually created with an application (such as a spreadsheet or word processor)

  • Cambridge dictionary

    a series of documents that show a record of your activities

    Again, it defines documents in a way that explicitly includes electronic files:

    a text that is written and stored on a computer:

  • Collins

    Documents which provide evidence of someone's activities can be referred to as a paper trail. [mainly US]

    And, document:

    A document is a piece of text or graphics, for example a letter, that is stored as a file on a computer and that you can access in order to read it or change it.

As you can see, all of these definitions clearly suggest that you can still use paper trail even though no actual paper is present. If you're still not convinced, here are a few examples I found online simply by searching for "paper trail email" (emphases mine):

I went home and checked email correspondence from last year and could see I had and also the reasons why. It is easy to see how a dispute may have arisen without the benefit of a paper trail.

Email is like the Swiss Army knife of communication—quick, convenient, and always at your fingertips. Whether you’re coordinating with colleagues or touching base with clients, emails have your back.

Plus, the fact that it leaves a paper trail is like having your own personal secretary documenting everything.

One of the well known reasons why people create lots of unnecessary email in an organization is that they want to create a paper trail.

And these were literally the first three results for my search. In all, I think it is clear that paper trail is the right term here, supported both by dictionary definitions and common usage. Don't overthink it, just call it a paper trail.

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An email thread forms an Audit Trail.

M-W calls it a "a record of a sequence of events (such as actions performed by a computer) from which a history may be reconstructed."

Proof. A log. Documentation. Possibly, CYA documentation.

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    Events are not the same as emails. While an audit trail might include emails, it's not common. Usually it would be a record of who viewed and modified critical data.
    – Barmar
    Apr 19 at 14:32
  • @Barmar And papers aren't the same as letters, so an audit trail would still be an electronic version of a paper trail, or more likely the hypernym that covers both digital and physical records of events
    – No Name
    Apr 19 at 17:22
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    @NoName Yeah, but "audit trail" is tends to be used specifically for logs of important events. A bunch of saved emails is not usually considered an audit trail (although I suppose some organizations could implement their audit trail that way).
    – Barmar
    Apr 19 at 17:28
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It could be a thread.

Cambridge Dictionary has:

a connected group of pieces of writing on the internet, where people are talking about a particular subject

Merriam-Webster has:

a series of electronic messages (as on a message board or social media website) following a single topic or in response to a single message

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    this is good, although "** trail" has a connotation of something being used as proof/evidence (I think "thread" is more general)
    – Ben Bolker
    Apr 18 at 21:30
  • The correspondence may comprise more than one thread (given that thread here has a specific technical meaning in SMTP and NNTP usage). Apr 20 at 14:13
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If it's actually "e-mail communication" as in your title, email trail is quite often used.

In the usage I'm familiar with, this doesn't rule out attachments, but if the majority of the important content is in attachments it may not be the best term.

Paper trail is still used, perhaps figuratively but documents sent by email are still often printed for records.

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A sequence of emails would form (part of) a data trail, analogous to a sequence of letters forming (part of) a paper trail.

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Written record

Not as specific, but a very common term that includes all forms of written information about an event or a sequence of events.

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