Dynamics of Writing

On the record, off the record, unnamed and anonymous: Understanding terms associated with shielding sources in the wake of the NYT’s “resistance” Op-Ed

The New York Times took a rare step in journalism Wednesday, publishing an op-ed piece from a staff member of the White House in which the person declared he or she was “part of the resistance” that was working against President Donald Trump. What made the decision to run this piece different from other exposes over the years is that the Times allowed the staffer to remain anonymous to the public, thus shielding the person’s identity from public scrutiny.

As the president slammed the paper and the staffer, other people posited theories and suppositions as to who this person is and what he or she was attempting to do with this essay. The Times also offered some insight, explaining how this worked and providing the public the opportunity to question the paper’s vetting process on this source.

Journalists will have to decide how to handle reticent sources and inside information. Although this kind of piece is rare in media circles, reporters will likely run into frequent requests from sources to have information remain private or to not have their names attached to content. To help you understand what is and isn’t fair game and what these terms mean, here’s a short excerpt from the upcoming book, “Dynamics of Media Editing” that covers a few of the basics terms in this area:

On the record

This is the most common form of interview standard. When a writer and a source engage in a series of questions and answers regarding a topic, the interview is said to be on the record. This means the source can be quoted and information provided can be used and attributed to the source. When journalists identify themselves as such and begin asking questions, convention dictates the material obtained at this point is on the record.

 

Off the record

This term is often misunderstood and has caused a great deal of consternation for journalists and sources alike. In the most basic sense, deciding to go off the record is an agreement between a source and a journalist to discuss something that will not be attributed in a way that on-the-record information will be. What will be used and how it will be used needs to be clarified.

In some cases, the people will agree the material is “not for direct attribution,” meaning the material can be used but not attributed to the source by name. The reference to a “senior White House official” would fit an indirect attribution. In other cases, the material is said to be “not for attribution,” meaning the material can’t be attributed to the source, but can be used. Finally, the term “deep background” is used to describe material that is only to be used to foster further reporting. This is more of a news tip than anything else.

The interviewer and source should agree upon the rules and the way in which the information is to be used before the interview. They must also agree what is on and off the record. A source cannot unilaterally decide to go off the record, and journalists should remind a source of this. A clear understanding of how the interview and the material that is discussed will be handled can prevent bruised egos and hurt feelings.

 

Unnamed source

Journalists often converse with people who do not want to have their names used. The reasons can vary, but it is up to the journalist to determine whether the information the source will provide is worth keeping that person’s name a secret. When someone has important and unique information, you might agree to use that person as an unnamed source. When the person is talking about whether he or she is enjoying the county fair and yet doesn’t want to give his or her name, make sure the reporter knows enough to find another source.

 

Anonymous source

This term has tended to blanket unnamed and unknown sources, but in its purest definition, it skews more toward the latter. An unnamed source is someone the writer knows but who has received anonymity from that writer. In other words, the writer wants to use the information from the source and has agreed to do so without naming that source.

An anonymous source is often someone who is unknown to the writer. An email tip or a phone call from someone who will not give his or her name fits this definition. Although using unnamed sources can be risky, using anonymous sources can be dangerous. When discussing the situation with your staff members, make sure you understand if the source is anonymous or just unnamed. In addition, you need to determine the truthfulness of the information and value behind it. Finally, you will want to have the reporter get on-the-record information to verify and support the information from the unnamed or anonymous source.