Sometimes in our reporting we forget what’s what in terms of attribution. Here’s how the AP handles things.
Not everyone understands “off the record” or “on background” to mean the same things. Before any interview in which any degree of anonymity is expected, there should be a discussion in which the ground rules are set explicitly.
These are the AP’s definitions:
On the record. The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.
Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication.
Background. The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. AP reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record. These background briefings have become routine in many venues, especially with government officials.
Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.
In general, information obtained under any of these circumstances can be pursued with other sources to be placed on the record.
FJP: Pay attention to that last bit. If someone requests anonymity and will only speak off the record or on background or deep background, do your best to find someone who’ll put their name behind their words.
Related: Back when Reuters’ Jack Shafer was still at Slate, he had a pet project of tracking publications’ use of anonymous sources. He called them anonymice.