The Definitive Guide To Decoding Washington's Anonymous Sources

The Definitive Guide To Washington's Anonymous Sources

WASHINGTON -- As Congress has increasingly injected itself into people's lives by randomly disrupting them for no obvious reason, interest in the minute-to-minute goings on of these strange chambers of democracy, as evidenced by Google analytics, is on the rise among the general public. For those of you just walking into the theater, we thought a quick primer on some of the coded language the Capitol Hill press corps uses might be useful.

You have surely noticed that story after story is powered by the musings of anonymous congressional aides, lawmakers and White House officials. Can you believe any of this? Yes. But it depends. To a non-initiated reader, the description of these anonymous creatures may appear to be quite random. But embedded within them are major giveaways about the reliability of the information being passed on, and how much credit you should give it. For example, if the author of the story you're reading is an experienced Capitol Hill reporter, the description of the source you're reading is likely the result of an explicit agreement between the source and the reporter.

As an official -- who shall remain anonymous -- once put it to Politico's Glenn Thrush: "On the record is where the truth goes to die. On background means I'm spinning. Off the record means I'm telling the truth." If only it were that simple. Here's our definitive guide to decoding anonyspeak:

Senior Democratic leadership aide: We'll use "Democratic" throughout this piece, but it also applies to Republicans. By allowing "leadership" to be included in the description of the source, the aide is indicating that the line being put forward is the official, authorized position of that aide's boss -- the congressman or senator. The addition of "senior" is slight ratcheting up of the officialness of the quote. It's as close to on the record as you get on the Hill without it being connected to a specific name, because everybody knows the identity of the leadership. If a reporter identifies a source as "leadership" or "senior leadership" without permission, leadership will stop talking to that reporter. That's a fine outcome for some reporters -- more on that below.

Senior White House official: This is the official White House line, approved by a faction of the White House that has significant enough power within the building to get approval for such a quote. It's important to remember that there are several in every White House, organized around political differences, egos, or both, so the line coming from the senior White House official is a tip off to which camp is presently dominant.

Senior administration official: This is basically an official line, but is a rank below "White House official," since the person could be working in an agency somewhere. It gives the White House a little more room to claim down the road that it never said what it actually said.

Senior Democratic committee aide: Like leadership aides, there are only a handful of these, so it's a pretty specific identification, and represents the official line of the committee chairwoman or chairman (that is, unless the quote is sniping at the chair, then you've got a pretty great story).

Democratic committee aide: According to the unwritten rules, this ought to be a person with actual insider knowledge on the committee. This is similar to, but more specific than, "senior Democratic aide." If it's coming from a junior reporter, this aide could be any random person who works on the committee, but an experienced reporter shouldn't be playing games like that.

Senior Democratic aide: This one requires context, and there is a lot of room for interpretation within it, so the reader has to know the integrity of the reporter and the quality of his or her sources. A junior or otherwise loose reporter at a less reputable publication might use "senior aide" to make it appear as if the reporter has more of a story than he or she does, which is a major reason why credibility is a considerable asset on the Hill, and the identity of a story's author can dramatically affect the weight a story carries. If it's a "senior aide" quoted by the dean of the Capitol Hill press corps, David Rogers, it's going to get much more credit from readers than something in the Free Beacon. If the story centers on leadership, the source described as "senior" is -- or ought to be -- a leadership aide who is in the know; his or her office is not willing to attach its reputation (or dignity) to the quote by applying "leadership" to it.

If the story is about something being pushed by, say, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and the quote is in defense of Joe Manchin, that aide is either a spokesman or a top aide to Manchin himself. Why wouldn't the aide just allow the office to be identified, since it's so obvious? It's about respect and the congressional hierarchy: An aide associated with an office is probably pushing an agenda that is in opposition to Manchin's own leadership or other influential colleagues. Using the name of the office publicly is seen as a more aggressive move -- a public confrontation with leadership. The more a quote is specified, the more public the fight. Speaking merely as a "senior aide" is a way to get one's side of a story out without drawing the ire of colleagues or raising the stakes with leadership -- which could lead to loss of committee assignments or, worse, a less cool Capitol hideaway. An office ready for an all-out brawl, rather, might say: "Fuck it, put my name on it."

If the story is about an issue within a committee, the senior aide's quote requires context. If it's in furtherance of the goals of the committee chair, that's where it's coming from. If it's critical of the committee chair, it's from leadership or from the chair's public opponent on the particular issue.

There is also some internal media politics involved. If other reporters see a "leadership" quote somewhere, they will run to leadership to fetch one for themselves -- and gripe about why so-and-so got a quote but I didn't. If it's just "senior aide," that's less likely to happen.

By the way, here’s a fun game you can play. Sometimes you’ll read a story and there will be one named source giving a very straight take at the top of a piece, and then you’ll have an unnamed source, given a descriptor such as “senior," giving a more arch, controversy-stoking take designed to “make news.” Chances are, they are the same person! Remember that any source can vacillate wildly between being on the record and off in the course of a single conversation. Some reporters won't allow a source to be quoted in different ways in the same story, but many will; either way, it is never okay to pretend that one source is two or three, so look for the clues that it's the same person.

But let's continue the hierarchy. At this point, let's note that we are getting way, way down the totem pole. As a general rule, anytime you see the following attributions in a dishy Capitol Hill story, the question that you, as a reader, are going to want to ask yourself, is this: “If I knew this person’s actual station or identity, would I immediately conclude that they aren’t particularly interesting people on their own, and they depend on the veil of anonymity itself to seem important?” The answer to this question is usually, “Yes.”

Senate/House Democratic aide: This could be anybody, from leadership on down, and could be rogue or official. It's not very useful to the reader, though is often used if an aide has come up with a particularly clever, biting or funny way of putting something, or as a way to simply move a story along. A staffer who can get his or her thoughts into a story under this description has pulled a bit of a coup, and reporters try to avoid using this formulation. But the need for quick turnarounds in the post-Politico age creates pressures that allow these House aides to sneak their way into print.

Democratic aide (chamber, branch of government unspecified): This is a reporter who gave up and a source who was given a free hit.

Aide/official (party, branch of government and chamber unspecified): Oh good God. It better be a damn good quote. See the "official" in this story's intro.

Democratic strategist: Here we have fallen to the bottom of the Capitol Hill chum bucket. Anytime you see the signifier “strategist” attached to a quote, you should read this as “random Democratic person who the reporter called up to get an outsider take on whatever story is happening and what he/she thinks about whether or not his/her party is ‘winning.’” Usually, the unnamed strategist thinks that his/her party is NOT winning. This is why the reporter called this person in the first place -- for some just-add-water friction and tension. The reason that the strategist goes unnamed is probably because they want a job in the administration they are criticizing, or at least some consulting fees from the campaign committee.

Democratic operative: This is almost as bad as "strategist," but the chance they have some real inside knowledge is slightly higher, because they operate rather than just strategize.

Democratic operative close to Sen. So-And-So: Paradoxically, this is often a very good source. The arm's length distance created by the vague description gets the source closer to off-the-record, and therefore closer to the truth, and the stated connection to the principal politician indicates an actual, serious inside knowledge. This formulation can easily be abused, but from a good reporter, you can typically take this one to the bank. Incidentally, this "operative" is often times a lobbyist, and is sometimes the politician's actual chief of staff or spokesperson, who doesn't want the office itself connected to the leak. A good reporter knows which lobbyists have real inside information and which haven't had a clue what's going on since they gave up their Hill badge. A bad one doesn't, which lets K Street sources fill the Web with misinformation. More reason not to trust bad reporters. Bad reporters -- in the competence sense of the word -- are the ones who report things that turn out to be wrong.

Source/person/aide/official familiar with the situation: This is a source, most likely a spokesperson, who has been briefed about something, but was not personally present for the meeting. It's a way of confirming information without attaching a particular office to it. But think about all the “situations” with which you are “familiar” -- would you put a lot of stock in what you have to say about those situations? If you just answered “yes,” you have probably appeared in multiple political stories lately.

Source/person/aide/official involved in the negotiations: This source is a real part of the negotiations he or she is telling the reporter about. Getting briefed doesn't count. This person had better be in the actual room and preferably should be an active part of the negotiations, rather than an aide in the back of the room, otherwise the reporter is overselling it. Why should that matter? Because the mere fact that someone actively involved in the negotiations is talking about the negotiations to a reporter says something about the state of those talks. The ones making the most progress are the ones nobody is talking about and nobody knows about.

We call this democracy.

UPDATE: 9:54 p.m. -- HuffPost's Sam Stein notes we missed one (not so) critical player, the "Democratic operative with ties to the White House," who is somebody who lives in Washington, or the greater Washington area. That's about all you can tell from that one.

DC reporters: Did we miss anybody else? What can we glean from your source formulation? Write us at and please specify the gradation of background on which you're speaking. Anonymity guaranteed.

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