The university's school colors come from the two debating societies that were prominent in early campus life: the Philanthropic Society's color was white, and the Dialectic Society's color was light blue. Students wore ribbons in their society's color to important school events, and the ribbons also were used on diplomas awarded by the societies. In the late 1880s, when UNC began competing in intercollegiate athletics, the teams adopted white and light blue as the school colors. Early coverage of Carolina football games in the Tar Heel sometimes referred to the team as "the white and blue." In 1894 students started a short-lived newspaper called the White and Blue to serve as a competitor to the Tar Heel. The school colors also featured prominently in a song written by W. S. Myers in 1897:

Only a bow of ribbon,
A ribbon of white and blue,
Faded, soiled, and crumpled,
A token so true.
Only a bow of ribbon,
Of ribbon white and blue,
The emblem of departed days,
The colors of N.C.U.

Though performed a few times by the UNC Glee Club, "Only a Bow of Ribbon" has not had the staying power of Myers's other composition, "Hark the Sound."