Off-the-record. On the record. On background. “A source familiar with the matter.” What do all of these phrases mean?

There are journalistic practices and lingo that are well-known within the profession, but can be confusing to news consumers.

Reporter Perry Bacon, Jr. of FiveThirtyEight, explains why anonymous sources are used this way.

But major investigative stories, both in Washington and outside of it, are often impossible to write without unnamed sources. The alternative to stories with unnamed sources is often not having the story published at all, rather than the same story with names. Sources have a wide range of motives for not going public. Some reasons are noble (whistleblowers may face retribution for leaking details to a reporter). Some are not (White House aides, both in the Trump administration and previous ones, sometimes don’t like one another and complain anonymously about their colleagues to the press).

Either way, there are many news outlets and often very few people who know the details of White House deliberations or the state of the Russia investigation. So the sources have the power to set the terms with the journalists, and one of those terms is often, “don’t use my name.”

We recommend the whole series he wrote on this very topic.

In what some consider “the golden age” of reporting, with scoop after scoop on the Russia investigation, President Trump’s business dealings and more, how do we know what kind of information we’re getting? When a source wants to be anonymous, what’s the journalist’s process for verifying their claims?

We’ll talk to a current White House reporter, an editor and a media ethics expert who will break it down for us.

Produced by Amanda Williams and Gabi Healy; text by Gabi Healy

We also recommend this video, of Washington Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen, interviewing a woman posing as a victim of Roy Moore, the former Senate candidate from Alabama.


  • Jonathan Weisman Deputy Washington editor, The New York Times; Author, "(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in the Age of Trump"; @jonathanweisman
  • Vivian Salama White House reporter, The Wall Street Journal; @vmsalama
  • Kelly McBride Media ethicist and vice president, The Poynter Institute; author of "The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century;" co-host of the Everyday Ethics podcast.

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows

Game Mode: Composer Inon Zur

Tuesday, Jul 16 2019"Fallout." "Dragon Age." "Prince of Persia." Behind these otherworldly games are intricate, otherwordly soundtracks. And behind those soundtracks is Emmy Award-winning composer is Inon Zur.

Yes, My President

Tuesday, Jul 16 2019The president has a long track record of racist statements. Does it matter to his supporters?

Game Mode: Consoles And Community

Monday, Jul 15 2019Sure, some gamers play to detach from others, but increasingly video games are helping people with socialization skills by building communities.