It was started in 1981 by Russ Smith and Alan Hirsch, the owners of the Baltimore City Paper. For its first year it was called 1981. The name was changed to City Paper in January 1982 and in December 1982 Smith and Hirsch sold 80% of it to Chicago Reader, Inc. In 1988, Chicago Reader, Inc. acquired the remaining 20% interest. In July 2007 both the Washington City Paper and the Chicago Reader were sold to the Tampa-based Creative Loafing chain. In 2012, Creative Loafing Atlanta and the Washington City Paper were sold to SouthComm.
The City Paper is distributed on Thursdays; its average circulation in 2006 was 85,588. The paper's editorial mix is focused exclusively on local news and arts.
Michael Schaffer was named editor in April, 2010, two months after Erik Wemple resigned to run the new local startup TBD. Amy Austin, the longtime general manager, was promoted to publisher in 2003.
Regular City Paper features include:
- a cover feature, 2,500 to 12,000 words in length
- an arts feature, 1,200 to 2,000 words in length
- The District Line, a section of shorter news features about D.C.
- Loose Lips, a news column and blog devoted to D.C. local politics, written by Will Sommer
- Young & Hungry, a food column and blog written by Jessica Sidman, and previously, Chris Shott
- Housing Complex, a real estate column and blog, written by Aaron Weiner
- Music, theater, film, gallery, and book reviews by various writers
- City Lights, a section comprising critics' events picks.
Also published are several syndicated features: