For the Record, What “Off the Record” Means

The Drudge Report says that Jane Sherburne, a former White House lawyer, claims Bob Woodward violated a source agreement with her in his new book, Shadow. According to Drudge, Sherburne made this claim in a deposition to Judicial Watch, the Clinton-hating, right-wing-litigation machine headed by Larry Klayman. Also according to Drudge, the deposition is supposed to be posted today on Judicial Watch’s Web site. As of this writing, it isn’t there, and Judicial Watch isn’t returning Chatterbox’s phone calls. So it’s possible Drudge’s whole story is untrue. (This has been known to happen before.) If Sherburne really is alleging that Woodward burned her, however, Chatterbox predicts the culprit will turn out to be not Woodward but the confusing jargon that laces all conversations between sources and reporters whenever the matter of “May I quote you?” comes up. You know: background, deep background, not for attribution, and off the record. Chatterbox, who has been a Washington journalist for nearly 20 years, doesn’t have a clue what most of these terms mean, and doesn’t believe anyone else does, either. Or rather, thinks that if you ask different journalists what the terms mean, they will give you different answers.

Probably the closest thing to an authority on both journalism and language is William Safire, columnist for the New York Times. Safire wrote a language column for the New York Times 10 years ago in which he tried to sort out the meaning of all these words. He found, however, that there was great disagreement among Bob Pierpoint of CBS News, former Newsweek pundit Ernest L. Lindley, and journalism professor Ben Bagdikian. Chatterbox decided to repeat the experiment, this time questioning five journalists who are still in the profession and who work within a single news organization, the Washington Post (where Woodward hangs his hat). Surely, Chatterbox thought, if these terms have any meaning at all, these Posties–gifted and responsible journalists all–will all agree on what those meanings are, or at least will be able to parrot a company line. But if there is a Post company line on this, none of Chatterbox’s Posties (none of whom is in upper management, and each of whom works in a separate section of the newspaper) knows what it is. A couple looked in their stylebooks and said the definitions weren’t there. Here are the various ways the Posties themselves defined the four sourcing terms:


Postie No. 1: “If I’m talking to someone at the White House, ‘senior administration official.’ Or you might be able to negotiate it up to ‘White House official.’ By background, they mean ‘not for attribution.’ “

Postie No. 2: “I take ‘background’ to mean that I can use it without attribution, although people have tried to wrestle me into, ‘no, no, you can’t use this at all.’ ” This person had a less precise notion than Postie No. 1 of how narrow the category was into which a reporter could place the source when describing him.

Postie No. 3: “Background means that you can use the information but not attribute it … to a name, and I think it’s the responsibility of both the source and the reporter to get clear between themselves how the attribution will be rendered in print.”

Postie No. 4: “It means that you are talking to them, [and] you can use the material, but not quoting them and with no sign of who said it.” This person, unlike Post ies No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3, said you cannot characterize the source in any way.

Postie No. 5: “Background means not to be attributed to any source.” Like Postie No. 4, but unlike Posties No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3, this person said you can’t characterize the source in any way. “If somebody says, ‘The East Wing [of the White House] is going to be blown up tomorrow morning, but that’s on background,’ then you can just report that the East Wing is going to be blown up tomorrow morning, ‘according to rumor.’ You can’t say ‘a White House official.’ “

Deep background

Postie No. 1: “I have no idea.” When pressed, this person ventured: “Deep background means you can write it on your own dime, but you can’t attribute it to anybody, in any way.”

Postie No. 2: “When people have tried to call things deep background, I take that as a sign that they don’t know what they’re talking about … I just don’t take the term seriously at all.”

Postie No. 3: “I take that to mean that you can use the information but you can’t attribute it, period.” Also, “it’s up to you to satisfy yourself that it’s good information by doing good reporting.”

Postie No. 4: “You can’t use it, I guess? You can only use it to get more information? I have no idea.”

Postie No. 5: “That means you practically can’t use it. The context would have to be quite special to use the information at all. And so it would be something like, “Contradicting earlier fears that the East Wing would be blown up, the structure stood as of this morning.” According to this person, “deep background” differs from “background” thusly: With “background,” the information can be imparted as the main thrust of the story; with “deep background,” the information only can be imparted in an incidental way–not as the main thrust of the story.

Not for attribution

This is the one term that Chatterbox finds genuinely useful when talking to sources, perhaps because it is the least jargon-ridden. It is also the only term on whose meaning all the Posties agree. Here is how Postie No. 2 phrased it: “Able to quote but with a characterization that links it to a smallish number of people.”

Off the record

This term sounds straightforward, but to Chatterbox’s thinking it is really the most confusing. The Postie poll bears that out:

Postie No. 1: “Most of the time, when people say off the record, they don’t really mean it … I have no idea what ‘off the record’ means.”

Postie No. 2: “When people try to tell me something is off the record, it means you can’t use this … I just try not to have off-the-record conversations.”

Postie No. 3: “It means that you can’t use it unless you are able to report it.” The source is “giving you a tip that you can go report as kind of a blind tip.” But, in this person’s view, the reporter may not tell other sources that he’s been told this information, even if he refuses to provide clues as to the tipster’s identity.

Postie No. 4: “Means you can’t quote me. No, I don’t remember … You can’t attribute, but you can use it? No, I take that back. If someone says ‘off the record,’ you can’t use it at all.”

Postie No. 5: “Nowadays, off the record means–usually it comes in the middle of the interview, and somebody says, ‘Can we go off the record?’ and you say yes or no.” According to this person, if the reporter says yes, then the rules are the same as in “not for attribution.”

[Update, 6/23: The Sherburne deposition is posted on Judicial Watch’s Web site now, and it does accuse Woodward of misusing her off-the-record interview. Score one for Drudge. Also score one for Chatterbox: From Sherburne’s account of the matter (scroll down to pp. 58-89), it seems that Sherburne and Woodward didn’t have the same understanding of what “off the record” meant. In this instance, Sherburne seemed to think it meant “don’t use at all,” while Woodward seemed to think it meant “use if you can get from another source.”]