The following is excerpted from the June 1976 issue of [More], the short-lived journalism review.
How do you define: off the record, not for attribution, background and deep background?
They all sound like the same thing to me. They all sound like don’t print it. Off the record is don’t print it. Deep background is don’t attribute it. I’d have to have the source define background. My experience is that as soon as someone says don’t print it, you pick up a paper the next day and someone else printed it.
Theoretically, off the record means you can’t use it. Most people think off the record means you can use it but there can’t be any connection whatsoever to them. During Watergate I had one lawyer say, “off-off-off the record,” and I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it. You have a real problem whether to use it. Most of the time you try to clarify. It’s different with everyone. It’s complicated.
Off the record is not for quotation. Not for attribution is the same thing. Background — that comes from the Lindley Rule, after the late Ernest K. Lindley of Newsweek. When you’re talking with Kissinger and you can’t attribute it to an official, you write it on your own. No such conversation ever took place. There’s not too much difference between background and deep background.
It’s negotiable separately with each source. Off the record is something I don’t quote. Not for attribution means you can quote, but you can’t identify the source. Background and deep background are terms for dealing with powerful people, and most of the work I do is with powerless people. I’m dealing with a court stenographer to get stuff on a judge. He’s probably never heard those phrases. They’re for dealing with the Secretary of State.
Most people think off the record is the same as not for attribution: You can use it, but don’t use my name. Off the record can also mean you can use the information but not the quotation — people have expressions or language that they use that might be recognized. Not for attribution means you can use the quotes but you cannot use my name. Background means you can’t use the information. It’s there to give you an idea of what’s going on. Deep background? The expression is just a joke.
THEODORE H. WHITE
I never try to define those things. That’s Washington journalistic jargon. Off the record means: I won’t quote you, but if I quote you by name I’ll let you see your direct quote.
Off the record: it cannot be used in any way. Not for attribution: it can be used, but the source cannot be named. Background: it can be used for your own information, but not attributed to any source, even an unnamed official. You use it for your own thinking. Deep background: I don’t know. I suppose you take extra precaution so the source can’t be identified. It’s a peculiar Washington phrase. No source has ever said “deep background” to me. What can it mean? Let’s go behind the curtain?
I really don’t operate at that many different levels. Deep background? I’ve never in my whole life found anyone so silly as to use the expression. Background? I’ve heard it at some farflung outpost of the bureaucracy. I’ve just dismissed it as a useless expression they enjoyed using. Generally, off the record means I ought to do everything I can to protect him. Not for attribution means I can get close to his office in identifying my source.
These interviews were conducted in 1976 by Judith Hennessee.
UPDATE: Rem Rieder sends this link to a 1994 AJR piece on attribution definitions.