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red herring (n.)

"smoked herring" early 15c. (they turn red when cured), as opposed to white herring "fresh herring." Supposedly used by fugitives to put bloodhounds off their scent (1680s), hence metaphoric sense (1864) of "something used to divert attention from the basic issue;" earlier it simply meant "a false lead":

Though I have not the honour of being one of those sagacious country gentlemen, who have so long vociferated for the American war, who have so long run on the red-herring scent of American taxation before they found out there was no game on foot; (etc.) [Parliamentary speech dated March 20, 1782, reprinted in "Beauties of the British Senate," London, 1786]

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Definitions of red herring from WordNet

red herring (n.)
any diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue;
red herring (n.)
a dried and smoked herring having a reddish color;
Synonyms: smoked herring
red herring (n.)
a first draft of a prospectus; must be clearly marked to indicate that parts may be changed in the final prospectus;
because some portions of the cover page are printed in red ink a preliminary prospectus is sometimes called a red herring
Synonyms: preliminary prospectus
From wordnet.princeton.edu