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Saturday, December 7, 2019

Unnamed Sources Policy

Confidential Sources Standards and Guidelines


We use confidential sources sparingly to provide important information that cannot be obtained through on-the-record sources. Reporters should disclose the identity of unnamed sources to at least one editor.

We will disclose to readers or viewers the reasons for granting confidentiality, such as fear for the source’s safety or job, when we use unnamed sources.

We publish information from confidential sources that we consider reliable, but do not publish the opinions of unnamed sources.

We do not attend “background briefings” where officials try to spoon-feed information to the media without speaking for the record.

We are more open to granting confidentiality to sources we approach for interviews than to sources approaching us with tips or with dirt about political opponents or business rivals.

We always assume that government snoops, law enforcement or hackers might access our regular communication channels when we grant confidentiality to a source. We use technology such as encryption software or “burner” cell phones to protect confidentiality.

Best Practices


We don’t approach sources or start interviews with an offer of confidentiality. We presume that every interview is on the record until a source requests confidentiality.

We start interviews by asking sources to spell their names and give their titles. This establishes immediately that we plan to use the name and will prompt a reluctant source to start a discussion about confidentiality.

We mark clearly in our notes when a source goes off the record (and mark clearly again if the source goes back on the record).

We discuss requests for confidentiality with sources and are clear about the terms of our agreement: Can we use the information but not attribute by name (how then can we identify the source)? Is the information not for publication but just for our understanding (how then can we be sure the source knows we will attempt to get the information from other sources)?

We are specific about anonymity promises we make to sources. There’s a difference between saying we’ll leave a source’s name out of a story, and saying no one will ever know that they were the source. We calibrate our promises to what we can actually deliver.

We avoid using terms such as “background,” “deep background,” “off the record” or “not for attribution” with sources. They may not understand the terms or may understand them differently than we mean. We discuss terms of our confidentiality agreement specifically; we make sure both our sources and us understand the terms, and we write them in our notebook.

Generally, speaking to a source “on background” could mean:

  • information learned from the conversation, including direct quotations, can be used, but personally identifiable information (like a person’s name, their specific job title, etc.) cannot be used;
  • information learned from the conversation can be used, but direct quotations cannot be used, nor can personally identifiable information; or
  • information learned from the conversation can be used, but direct quotes cannot be used, and the information cannot be attributed to a source. This is sometimes referred to as “deep background,” and these types of conversations can help inform the reporting of the story.

We ask sources who don’t want to speak for the record if they can provide documentation of what they tell us, or if they can refer us to other sources who might speak for the record or provide documentation.

We review information that was off the record after we’ve finished an interview that includes off-the-record information, and we try to persuade the source to go on the record for some or all of it. Sometimes enough trust is built during an interview to get more information on the record.