An antecedent to the term is the Greek word andrapodismos (Greek: ανδραποδισμός; lit. "enslavement"), which was used in ancient texts to describe atrocities that accompanied Alexander the Great's conquest of Thebes in 335 BC. In the early 1900s, regional variants of the term could be found among the Czechs (očista), the Poles (czystki etniczne), the French (épuration) and the Germans (Säuberung). A 1913 Carnegie Endowment report condemning the actions of all participants in the Balkan Wars contained various new terms to describe brutalities committed toward ethnic groups.
During World War II, the euphemism čišćenje terena ("cleansing the terrain") was used by the Croatian Ustaše to describe military actions in which non-Croats were purposely killed or otherwise uprooted from their homes. Viktor Gutić, a senior Ustaše leader, was one of the first Croatian nationalists on record to use the term as a euphemism for committing atrocities against Serbs. The term was later used in the internal memorandums of Serbian Chetniks in reference to a number of retaliatory massacres they committed against Bosniaks and Croats between 1941 and 1945. The Russian phrase очистка границ (ochistka granits; lit. "cleansing of borders") was used in Soviet documents of the early 1930s to refer to the forced resettlement of Polish people from the 22-kilometre (14 mi) border zone in the Byelorussian and Ukrainian SSRs. This process was repeated on an even larger scale in 1939–41, involving many other groups suspected of disloyalty towards the Soviet Union. During The Holocaust, Nazi Germany pursued a policy of ensuring that Europe was "cleansed of Jews" (Judenrein).
In its complete form, the term appeared for the first time in the Romanian language (purificare etnică) in an address by Vice Prime Minister Mihai Antonescu to cabinet members in July 1941. After the beginning of the invasion of the USSR, he concluded: “I do not know when the Romanians will have such chance for ethnic cleansing." In the 1980s, the Soviets used the term "ethnic cleansing" to describe the inter-ethnic violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. At around the same time, the Yugoslav media used it to describe what they alleged was an Albanian nationalist plot to force all Serbs to leave Kosovo. It was widely popularized by the Western media during the Bosnian War (1992–95). The first recorded mention of its use in the Western media can be traced back to an article in The New York Times dated 15 April 1992, in a quote by an anonymous Western diplomat.
Synonyms include ethnic purification.