Experienced reporters and sources have worked out shorthand for describing how much of the source's identity may be revealed and how much of what the source says may be published. This shorthand system recognizes four levels of attribution: on the record, on background, on deep background and off the record.

  • "On-the-record" attribution means that everything the source says may be published and quoted directly, and the source may be fully identified by name and title. Reporters should try to keep as much as possible of every interview on the record. This allows readers to see or hear the source's exact words and know who the source is.
  • "On background," which is sometimes referred to as "not for attribution," means the reporter may quote the source directly but may not attribute the statements to the source by name. The reporter may describe the source by her position. Patrick E. Tyler of The New York Times used on-background sources for a story exposing U.S. military assistance to Iraq during its war against Iran. Tyler reported the United States had covertly provided intelligence and battle plans to Iraq even though U.S. officials knew Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against both Iranian troops and civilian rebels inside Iraq. Much of Tyler's story was attributed to "senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program" or "former Defense Intelligence Agency officers" who were willing to talk only on the condition that they not be identified.

When reporters use on-background information, they try to describe the source as fully as possible. To say the information came from "a government employee" is meaningless. Saying the source is "a member of the House Appropriations Committee staff" gives readers more information. Sources often will try to keep the identification as vague as possible; reporters try to make it as specific as possible. Because of that tradition, journalists were surprised to learn of an agreement Judith Miller, then a reporter with The New York Times, had reached with I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Libby was providing Miller classified information he hoped would refute claims the Bush administration had inflated the threat that Saddam Hussein's Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Libby said the information could be used only on background. Miller said she would identify him as a "senior administration source," but Libby insisted he be identified as a "former Hill staffer." That was technically correct; he had worked in Congress in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the identification Libby asked for would be misleading. Miller agreed to Libby's request, but she later said she planned to renegotiate the attribution. Miller never wrote about what Libby told her, and the story of their arrangement came out in the federal grand jury investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

  • "On deep background" is a variation of the backgrounder. This level of attribution is sometimes called the Lindley Rule, named after Ernest K. Lindley, a Newsweek columnist who used it during the Harry Truman administration to persuade U.S. leaders to discuss military and diplomatic affairs. A source on deep background may not be quoted directly and may not be identified in any way. A reporter must publish the information without any attribution or with a phrase like, "It has been learned that. . . ." Unless reporters have a high degree of confidence in the source and the information and the approval of their supervisors, they should stay away from information given on deep background.
  • "Off the record" is the final level of attribution. It generally means a source's information cannot be used, but that is often misunderstood. Some people say they are speaking off the record when they really mean they are speaking on background. Also, reporters and sources sometimes disagree as to exactly what "off the record" means. The U.S. State Department's Office of Press Relations says reporters may not use off-the-record information in any way. Reporters, however, sometimes use off-the-record information as leads to other sources. Almost every secret is known by several people, sometimes hundreds of people. Once reporters know what they are looking for, they usually can locate public records or sources who can verify the information on the record or on background. Some reporters refuse to listen to off-the-record statements. If one cannot publish or broadcast the information, why listen to it? Others see it as an opportunity to gain insight into official thinking. Or it may help them put the information they can publish in a more accurate context.