The company was founded by Peter G. Thomson, who had purchased patents for a card coating machine from Charles H. Gage, president of the Champion Card and Paper Co. of Pepperell, Massachusetts, who in exchange received a half-interest in Thomson's venture. Thomson established the Champion Coated Paper Co. in 1893, building a plant in Hamilton, Ohio, 20 miles (32 km) north of Cincinnati on the Great Miami River. Thomson at first advertised his company as the "western branch" of the better-known Massachusetts concern. However, Thomson soon bought out Gage, and the entire Champion operation was moved to Ohio.
The Champion factory was completely destroyed in a December 1901 fire. It was rebuilt and back in operation by June 1902. The factory was again destroyed in the Great Flood of 1913, when fire broke out; the factory was again rebuilt, this time in three months.
Peter Thomson died in 1931, and the company was taken over by his eldest son, Alexander. Another son, Logan, took over Champion in 1935, and remained in charge until his death in 1946.
Champion was the largest coated paper manufacturer in the country through World War II, but struggled after the war. The company laid off a third of its workforce in 1961, and merged with U. S. Plywood Corp. in 1967, forming U. S. Plywood-Champion Papers Inc. The name was changed to Champion International Corp. in 1972.
In the 1980s, Champion's Chief Executive Officer, Andrew C. Sigler, pushed the company to find ways to redesign and improve manufacturing operations and quality of products. This led to a decade long transformation guided by principles of sociotechnical design. The success of the initial projects led the whole company to adopt the process. By various measures of revenue, output, and quality, the changes were successful. Champion merged with St. Regis Corporation in the summer
By the 1990s, environmental concerns were affecting the company's prospects for future growth. In the US, a growing awareness that the country was running out of space in its garbage dumps signaled changes in the markets served by the paper industry. Minimum standards for the use of recycled paper were increasingly adopted. Concerns about water pollution and toxic waste byproducts of the milling process were growing. In particular, Champion settled several lawsuits brought by North Carolina and Tennessee over their Canton, North Carolina, site and by 1999 had sold the paper mill there.
The company's stock price was stagnant by the late 1990s as a new CEO, Richard Olson, came to the helm.
The company headquarters was moved to Stamford, Connecticut, in 1980, on One Champion Plaza (now 400 Atlantic Street). In 2000, Champion was bought by International Paper, which then moved it's headquarters office from Purchase, NY to Champion's headquarters in Stamford. The Champion International building had been a cultural attraction for over 20 years, hosting the "Whitney Museum at Champion". In 2005, International Paper moved their headquarters to Tennessee, and the former headquarters at 400 Atlantic Street was sold to the Landis Group, who stopped providing free space to the Whitney.
International Paper announced in September 2013 that it would shut down operations at its Courtland Mill facility in Courtland, Alabama, one of the area's largest employers since 1970. The abrupt announcement created economic and environmental concerns in Lawrence County, Alabama. Residents, current employees, and local businesses hoped the vacated facility would serve as home for another company but braced for a devastating economic impact. In March 2017, crews began the demolition of the 2,200-acre (890-hectare) facility.