Often, even the existence of the conversation is to remain private. But sometimes, as with Mr. Trump’s tweet about The Times, the other side starts talking.
A lower-stakes example from my own experience: the ballad of Ted Cruz and the mediocre Chinese food. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Cruz held an off-the-record session with several reporters who were traveling with him, in the lounge area of a New Hampshire hotel lobby. Per the agreed-upon rules, no journalist reported on it.
But at his news conference the next morning, Mr. Cruz alluded to the evening on camera, making a remark about our Chinese food order. So, now it can be confirmed: A bunch of us ate Chinese food in Ted Cruz’s company at some hotel in New Hampshire more than two years ago. It feels good to say out loud.
Background: Now it gets less intuitive. Generally, “on background” is understood to mean that the information can be published, but only under conditions agreed upon with the source. There can be good reasons for this — say, government employees sharing news-making documents that they would only volunteer without a name attached.
A reporter might negotiate with those sources to at least describe their jobs in broad strokes, to give a reader proper context: “a federal worker who shared the material,” “a government official with access to the information.” Anything is better than “a source,” which adds nothing (and which The Times does not abide as a description for a source in print).
Of course, politicians — and, at least as often, those who work for them — try to abuse this sourcing status with impunity. Orwellian turns like, “On background, we can’t comment,” are common, as are attempts to cloak the most loathsome clichés in anonymity for no valid reason: “On background, we’re running our race and the only poll that matters is on Election Day.” On background: No.
Deep background: This is where establishing ground rules is particularly important, since many journalists and sources have competing definitions. For some, there is no practical distinction between “background” and “deep background,” except that the latter sounds brooding and mysterious, evoking dark shadows and empty garages. Others interpret the term to mean that information can be used only for the reporter’s context and understanding, with no attribution of any kind.