The term “white space” is somewhat misleading. While some examples of white space are indeed white (like The New Yorker example above), that’s not usually the case.
In order to understand why white space got its name, we need to look at where it came from.
While there’s no person cited with creating white space or giving it a name, we can attribute it to the following parties:
The first is 20th-century Chinese artists and calligraphers. Empty spaces on the white rice paper they worked on weren’t treated as wasted space. They found meaning in the emptiness and believed that it contributed to the overall understanding of the whole picture.
They referred to this as “designing the white”.
Carol Douglas explains the value of white space in Chinese art:
“In Chinese art, empty space is expected to convey information through its very lack of imagery. The sizes and contours of the empty shapes create rhythm and unity. The solid shapes give meaning to the empty and vice-versa.”
White space later became a staple of print design thanks to Modernism, which focused on minimalism, structured grids, and negative space.
So, it’s also likely that we refer to it as white space because of the white paper the Modernists wrote on or the white canvases they painted on.