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The secret life of sources

Q: On the news, I often hear a source quoted “on condition of anonymity” and several variants thereof. This usage sounds like journalese or legalese. Can you clarify the original and the subtleties of its forms?

A: The expression “on condition of anonymity” is associated with news reporting, but we see it in legal contexts as well. So you’d be justified in calling it both “journalese” and “legalese.”

On the legal front, someone might wish to give information without having it linked to his name. This might happen, for instance, in organized-crime or securities-fraud cases, as well as other kinds of law-enforcement investigations.

But anonymous sources are probably most common in journalism, and have been for quite some time. As a British weekly, the Publishers’ Circular, noted in an editorial in 1893, “Anonymity in the press is not a new subject of discussion.”

Someone who talks to a reporter “on condition of anonymity” is willing to give information—but only if he’s not named. He wants certain information to be made public, but he’s not willing to take responsibility for it.

In both the law and in journalism, such information carries a taint of suspicion, even when it’s perfectly legitimate. The informant could have an ulterior motive, since  anonymity allows him to smear another person’s name while remaining nameless himself.

But sometimes journalists and investigators can’t get certain information in any other way, so they promise to protect their source. And it could be that the informant’s reason for anonymity is simply to protect himself—he might face retaliation if identified.

As we said, the anonymous source—even the anonymous reporter—isn’t new. Periodicals of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries commonly featured articles written anonymously or under pen names.

In the 17th century, a satirical pamphlet entitled Whimsies caricatured the anonymous journalist as a weekly “newes-monger” whose “owne genius is his intelligencer” (in other words, his source is himself).

“No matter though more experienced judgements disprove him; hee is anonymos, and that wil secure him,” the pamphlet said. (Here we’ve expanded on a 1631 quotation that appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

In the early 18th century, the Spectator, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, was notorious for its anonymous columns and for its “letters” (often fictional) from nameless or pseudonymous writers.

The OED quotes one letter-writer in 1712 as begging to be heard “amongst the crowd of other anonymous correspondents.”

And in 1820 Blackwood’s Magazine spoke of “the merit due to us, for being the first to carry on a periodical work, without that vile anonymous disguise, under which such unwarrantable liberties are frequently taken with You, my public.”

Oxford cites this 1882 quotation from the Times of London: “Academical dignitaries, writing … under a disguise of transparent anonymity.” Notice how the writer of that article recognized the evasive nature of the writings he was quoting.

The OED has no citations for the exact expression “on condition of anonymity,” and we can’t say for sure when it first appeared in print.

In 1925 E. M. Forster wrote in the Atlantic that “all literature tends toward a condition of anonymity.” But he used the expression in a different sense than the one we’re discussing here. Forster meant “condition” merely as a state, not as a requirement.

We find the “requirement” sense of the word in this 1925 quotation from the British Medical Journal:

“The Society had since received from the same generous and anonymous source a further munificent gift of something over £28,000, to be applied on the same terms and under the same condition of anonymity.”

And a 1949 article in the Proceedings of the American Association for Public Opinion Research referred to “the condition of anonymity” as “a condition which had for many years been resorted to on the assumption that servicemen would otherwise not give frank reports on the state of their morale.”

The expression as used by journalists quoting unnamed sources wasn’t common, as far as we can tell, until the latter half of the 20th century.

The first such use in the New York Times appears in a 1964 article: “But, though Kennedy himself kept his silence, some of his intimates, on condition of anonymity, did not.”

We’ve found 19th-century examples of the journalistic usage that come close, without using that exact wording.

This one, for example, is from a letter written by Jean Joseph Louis Blanc in 1863 and published in Letters on England (1876):

“Whence comes it that in such a country as England journalism is anonymous? Whence comes it that, generally speaking, anonymity is considered an indispensable condition of journalism? I confess that I am at a loss to explain it.”

And here’s an 1895 example from the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine:

“The first consideration should be, therefore, to create the condition most favorable for the critic to produce an unbiased opinion, and one of the elements of the condition is often anonymity, because it allows him to work impersonally.”

By now, the phrase “on condition of anonymity” is almost a journalistic cliché. 

Walter Shapiro wrote a humorous column on the subject in the Atlantic in 2005, entitled (naturally) “On Condition of Anonymity.”

And Matt Carlson wrote a book on the uses and abuses of anonymity, On the Condition of Anonymity: Unnamed Sources and the Battle for Journalism (2011).

We can’t leave without giving you a little etymology.

The adjective “anonymous,” according to the OED, was first recorded in 1601 (an earlier form, “anonymal,” died out). It literally means “without  name.”

English owes the word “anonymous” to Latin (anonymus) and ultimately Greek (anonymos). But it’s not classical at heart.

Its root is the ancient Indo-European word nomen, the source of the word for “name” in the Germanic languages as well as Latin and Greek.

“Anonymous” is the source of the short-lived noun “anonymousness” (1802) and the more durable “anonymity” (1820).

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