Sun, May 23, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Off the record, background and other hideyholes for sources

Despite more liberal interpretations, `off the record' has its roots in journalistic traditions going back to former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt's press briefings

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

"Speaking off the record," wrote an editorial-page colleague, "the judge, a seasoned court veteran, sharply criticized..."

Hold on. That may be the way most politicians and journalists now use "off the record," but it's not the way the panjandrums of the opinion mafia, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls us, were given to understand it when sourcemanship began.

Off the record, in my absolutist book, means: "You may not use this. It is for your ears only, not for publication in any form." (German media call this unter drei.)

When then president Gerald Ford mentioned to a group of New York Times editors that an attempt had once been made to assassinate a foreign leader, he caught himself and added, "but that's off the record."

Even though the stricture had not been agreed to beforehand (adding it belatedly is a no-no that journalists may choose to ignore), the publisher decided that they were dutybound to honor the president's request. Months later, Daniel Schorr of CBS, saying only that the story "came to my ears" and under no restriction, reported what led to a major Senate investigation of the CIA and its plot to kill Fidel Castro.

The phrase, used in a 1924 Times editorial, appealed to Franklin Roosevelt when he was governor of New York, and he popularized it early in his first term in the White House.

"He met and answered every question," wrote his secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, in a 1933 diary entry, "although in some instances his answers were off the record." That meant the information could not be used at all.

Douglass Cater, a Lyndon Johnson aide who later taught journalism, noted three other categories of Roosevelt answers: direct quotation; indirect quotation (to be used as "the president said that he"); and background, in which the information could be used but without identifying the president as the source.

"Roosevelt played the various categories with tremendous skill," Cater wrote, "keeping the correspondents informed even when it did not suit his purpose to inform the public."

`Not for attribution'

Background, also called "not for attribution," delighted many politicians, enabling them to use the media to evade responsibility, send up trial balloons or shoot rumors at their enemies from safe ambush positions. (British journalists called it "on lobby terms.") In the 1950s, background -- with a source vaguely mentioned but not named -- developed an offshoot, the category called deep background. Its promulgator was the Newsweek columnist Ernest Lindley, and journalists called it the Lindley Rule.

Nonspeakers

In a Columbia Journalism Review article titled "The President Nonspeaks," Ben Bagdikian wrote, "If reporters want to use something the nonspeaker has said at the nonmeeting, they must paraphrase the nonspeaker and attribute his ideas to their own intuition or some nameless source."

In 1968, I sent that article to Lindley, who had become an aide to the secretary of state, asking if that precisely interpreted his diktat. He responded, "The Lindley Rule was laid down in the Truman administration to enable high-ranking officials to discuss important matters -- especially those involving international and military affairs -- without being quoted or referred to in any way."

Then, from the horse's mouth, came this explication: "It was, and is, a rule of no attribution -- thus differing from the usual `background rule' permitting attribution to `official sources' or `US officials,' etc. Thus the paragraph you quote from Bagdikian is not quite correct - -- attribution to a `nameless source' is not permitted under the Lindley Rule."

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