Colophon derives from the Late Latin colophon, from the Greek κολοφων (meaning "summit", "top", or "finishing"). It should not be confused with Colophon, an ancient city in Asia Minor, after which "colophony", or rosin (ronnel) is named.
The term derives from tablet inscriptions appended by a scribe to the end of an ancient Near East (e.g., Early/Middle/Late Babylonian, Assyrian, Canaanite) text such as a chapter, book, manuscript, or record. In the ancient Near East, scribes typically recorded information on clay tablets. The colophon usually contained facts relative to the text such as associated person(s) (e.g., the scribe, owner, or commissioner of the tablet), literary contents (e.g., a title, "catch" phrase, number of lines), and occasion or purpose of writing. Colophons and "catch phrases" (repeated phrases) helped the reader organize and identify various tablets, and keep related tablets together.
Positionally, colophons on ancient tablets are comparable to a signature line in our own times. Bibliographically, however, they more closely resemble the imprint page in a modern book.
Examples of colophons in ancient literature may be found in the compilation Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Colophons are also found in the Pentateuch, where an understanding of this ancient literary convention illuminates passages that are otherwise unclear or incoherent. Examples are Numbers 3:1, where a later (and incorrect) chapter division makes this verse a heading for the following chapter instead of interpreting it properly as a colophon or summary for the preceding two chapters, and Genesis 37:2a, a colophon that concludes the histories (toledoth) of Jacob.
An extensive study of the eleven colophons found in the book of Genesis was done by Percy Wiseman. Wiseman's study of the Genesis colophons, sometimes described as the Wiseman hypothesis, has a detailed examination of the "catch phrases" mentioned above that were used in literature of the second millennium BC and earlier in tying together the various accounts in a series of tablets.
In early printed books the colophon, when present, was a brief description of the printing and publication of the book, giving some or all of the following data: the date of publication, the place of publication/printing (sometimes including the address as well as the city name), the name(s) of the printer(s), and the name(s) of the publisher(s), if different. Sometimes additional information, such as the name of a proof-reader or editor, or other more-or-less relevant details, might be added. The normal position for a colophon was after the explicit (the end of the text, often after any index or register). After around 1500 these data were often transferred to the title page, which sometimes existed in parallel with a colophon.
In Great Britain colophons grew generally less common in the 16th century. The statements of printing which appeared (under the terms of the Unlawful Societies Act 1799) on the verso of the title-leaf and final page of each book printed in Britain in the 19th century are not, strictly speaking, colophons, and are better referred to as "printers' imprints" or "printer statements".
With the development of the private press movement from around 1890, colophons became conventional in private press books, and often included a good deal of additional information on the book, including statements of limitation, data on paper, ink, type and binding, and other technical details. Some such books include a separate 'Note about the type', which will identify the names of the primary typefaces used, provide a brief description of the type's history and a brief statement about its most identifiable physical characteristics.
Some commercial publishers took up the use of colophons, and began to include similar details in their books, either at the end of the text (the traditional position) or on the verso of the title-leaf. Such colophons might identify the book's designer, the software used, the printing method, the printing company, the typeface(s) used in the page design and the kind of ink, paper and its cotton content. Book publishers Alfred A. Knopf, the Folio Society and O'Reilly Media are notable for their substantial colophons.
A less frequent use of the term is for a printer's mark or logotype. This originated in Renaissance printing shops, where a title page would feature the printer's mark (colophon) near the bottom of the page, usually above the printer's name and city.
Many colophons used in the 15th century are clearly derivative of alchemical symbols relating to the alloys used by printers to make lead type, primarily the symbols for antimony and tin.