The ABCs of Source Attribution — and Tips on Negotiating It



By Eric Rose and Thom Weidlich

In a recent post, we explained that you can’t impose the confidentiality of information on a journalist — confidentiality is negotiated and agreed upon. In addition, you must negotiate how that information will or won’t be attributed. For example, is it “not for attribution” or “on background”? The problem is, no one agrees what these words mean.

It’s best to clarify the terms of an interview before the interview (preferably by email), or everything the source says is automatically on the record. Unless the entire interview is on the record, any other arrangement (for example, going off the record for the answer to one question) must be clarified. It’s important to understand exactly what the reporter will do with this information and how it will be attributed.

For example, “off the record” status can’t be granted retroactively. Will a journalist sometimes allow that? Of course, but it all depends on the relationship between reporter and source and whether that reporter wants to use the source in the future.

Because there’s so much confusion about what these attribution terms mean, it’s important to spell out your understanding. For example, you might say to a reporter, “I can tell you this ‘not for attribution,’ meaning you can quote it but only from an anonymous source.”

And it’s best to agree on how the anonymous source will be identified in the piece. Remember that the reporter has to disclose enough information to show that the source is knowledgeable — that she has the authority to speak on the subject — and, increasingly, to show why she doesn’t want to be identified.

For example, what provoked our previous post on this subject was an email written to The Washington Post by a bystander to the marital capers of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In a March 2 New York Times article on that situation, reporter Amy Chozick separately cited “a person in Mr. Bezos’s camp, who was not authorized to speak on the record” and “one former Amazon executive, who signed a nondisclosure agreement and could discuss the company only anonymously.”

Brief Discussion

Here’s a further, brief discussion of the attribution terms:

On the record: This is the default status of all interviews if a journalist has identified herself as a reporter. Everything you say can be quoted, either directly or indirectly, and attached to your name for the public to see.

Off the record:  Most people accept “off the record” to mean that the information cannot be used in any fashion or attributed to the source. Some people also use it to mean that the journalist can use the information and not attribute it directly to your name, but to some sort of identifying information about you, for example, an employee at a company who did not want to reveal his name for fear of losing his job. Using information from a source attributed anonymously is also known as “not for attribution.”

On background: Some people take this to mean that a reporter may use and attribute information to a person’s name but not directly quote them. Others take it to mean that the information can be used in the piece but not attributed to the source.

On deep background: A reporter may use the information to inform further reporting (e.g., going to another source who can give the same information on the record), but cannot report the information nor attribute it to the original source in any fashion.

There are other permutations such as “deep deep background,” but no one really knows what that means.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared today on the CrisisResponsePro paid subscription portal. (CrisisResponsePro subscribers can access the full version by clicking here. ID and password are required.) To take advantage of all of the content, data, and collaborative resources CrisisResponsePro has to offer, contact us at

Related:Bezos Affair Saga Raises Issue of Confidentiality in Journalism