Ben Terris at WP gives an illustration of how a source cannot retroactively go off the record.
Me: You told me you found [George’s tweets] disrespectful.Matt Flegenheimer at NYT:
Kellyanne: It is disrespectful, it’s a violation of basic decency, certainly, if not marital vows . . . as “a person familiar with their relationship.”
Me: No, we’re on the record here. You can’t say after the fact “as someone familiar.”
Kellyanne: I told you everything about his tweets was off the record.
Me: No, that’s not true. That never happened.
Kellyanne: Well, people do see it this way. People do see it that way, I don’t say I do, but people see it that way.
Me: But I’m saying we never discussed everything about his tweets being off the record. There are certain things you said that I put off the record.
Kellyanne: Fine. I’ve never actually said what I think about it and I won’t say what I think about it, which tells you what I think about it.
On the record: This is the easy one — and a journalist’s strong preference at all times. Speakers can be named speaking the words they spoke. Enjoy responsibly.
If no rules are set in advance, the assumption is that everything is on the record: comments, eye-rolls, life in all its majesty. Sometimes, after an especially punchy flourish, a hammy politician might say something like, “And you can quote me on that!” This is generally not in doubt, but it’s always fun to hear anyway.
Off the record: Ideally, terms are established at the start. And since nothing from the conversation can be used for publication, journalists are, ideally, cleareyed about the consequences of this arrangement, if they agree to it at all: Sources will have their own agendas, trying to shape future coverage to their liking.
Background: Now it gets less intuitive. Generally, “on background” is understood to mean that the information can be published, but only under conditions agreed upon with the source. There can be good reasons for this — say, government employees sharing news-making documents that they would only volunteer without a name attached.
A reporter might negotiate with those sources to at least describe their jobs in broad strokes, to give a reader proper context: “a federal worker who shared the material,” “a government official with access to the information.” Anything is better than “a source,” which adds nothing (and which The Times does not abide as a description for a source in print).
Deep background: This is where establishing ground rules is particularly important, since many journalists and sources have competing definitions. For some, there is no practical distinction between “background” and “deep background,” except that the latter sounds brooding and mysterious, evoking dark shadows and empty garages. Others interpret the term to mean that information can be used only for the reporter’s context and understanding, with no attribution of any kind.