The UNC men’s basketball team was known informally as the “White Phantoms” from the 1920s through 1950s. It wasn’t an official nickname — they’ve always been the Tar Heels — but White Phantoms was a popular term for the team, especially among sportswriters.
The origins of the nickname are not entirely clear. A Daily Tar Heel article from 1965 attributed the nickname to Atlanta sportswriter Morgan Blake, who first used it after witnessing the quiet, quick play of the team in a tournament. At the time, the team also wore all-white uniforms, which probably contributed to the nickname.
The name originated in an era when sportswriters were known for their colorful language and creative headlines. UNC was not the only team with an unofficial sports-section nickname: N.C. State was the “Red Terrors,” Duke was the “Blue Imps,” and the Carolina freshman team was known as the “Tar Babies.” Most of these informal names have now faded from use, though a few have remained (like the “Wahoos” of the University of Virginia).
It’s hard to pin down exact dates for when the nickname was used, but a keyword search of the digitized Daily Tar Heel archives gives us a good idea. The first use appears in late 1925, around the time that UNC won the Southern Conference tournament in Atlanta (which supports the idea that it originated with an Atlanta sportswriter). It appears to have faded from use by 1951, possibly under the encouragement of the athletic department, which wanted to promote the consistent use of Tar Heels for all of the UNC teams.