For the Record, What "Off the Record" Means

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
June 22 1999 7:47 PM

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.

Advertisement

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:

Background

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."

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

How Moscow’s Anti-War March Revealed One of Russia’s Deepest Divides

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 7:46 PM Azealia Banks’ New Single Is Her Best in Years
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.