Many journalists and PR practitioners agree that there are varying degrees of anonymity. Common terms used include “deep background,” “background,” “not for attribution” and “off-the-record.” What these terms mean, how they differ and how they are implemented is up to the individual or his or her media outlet.
A terrific guide is The Washington Post’s Policies on Sources, Quotations, Attribution and Datelines, which is paraphrased below. (A version is available at www.poynter.org.)
On the record: Information that is fully attributable.
Background: Also called “not for attribution,” is information that can be attributed to a vaguely referenced source.
Deep Background: Information that is not to be attributed in any way. The Washington Post calls this a “tricky category” and encourages reporters to avoid it if possible.
Off-the-record: Frequently misused, this is conservatively interpreted as information that is not to be used in any way. Interestingly, The Washington Post urges reporters not to listen to off-the-record information, since it can restrict their ability to gather information about a story.
For Guidance: A less common term, but the basis for the relationship between Felt and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, this is information to prompt further reporting on the understanding that it will not be used as the basis for a story. Felt helped Woodward and Bernstein know whether their investigation was going in the right direction.
And then of course there is the double super secret background that Matthew Cooper offered Karl Rove. Steven Colbert explains:
Industry term, a bit of lingo. In essence it’s just like regular background, but with no tag-backs, frontsies or backsies, taken to infinity, plus one, on opposite day, circle, circle, dot - dot, now you got a cootie-shot. It was first pioneered by Edgar R. Murrow.
It’s a dirty practice, don’t be part of it.