Current salmonids comprise three lineages, taxonomically treated as subfamilies: whitefish (Coregoninae), graylings (Thymallinae), and the char, trout, and salmons (Salmoninae). Generally, all three lineages are accepted to allocate a suite of derived traits indicating a monophyletic group.
The Salmonidae first appear in the fossil record in the middle Eocene with the fossil Eosalmo driftwoodensis, which was first described from fossils found at Driftwood Creek, central British Columbia. This genus shares traits found in the Salmoninae, whitefish, and grayling lineages. Hence, E. driftwoodensis is an archaic salmonid, representing an important stage in salmonid evolution.
A gap appears in the salmonine fossil record after E. driftwoodensis until about seven million years ago (mya), in the late Miocene, when trout-like fossils appear in Idaho, in the Clarkia Lake beds. Several of these species appear to be Oncorhynchus—the current genus for Pacific salmon and some trout. The presence of these species so far inland established that Oncorhynchus was not only present in the Pacific drainages before the beginning of the Pliocene (~5–6 mya), but also that rainbow and cutthroat trout, and Pacific salmon lineages had diverged before the beginning of the Pliocene. Consequently, the split between Oncorhynchus and Salmo (Atlantic salmon) must have occurred well before the Pliocene. Suggestions have gone back as far as the early Miocene (about 20 mya).