Source is a term used in journalism to refer to any individual from whom information about a story has been received. Outside of journalism, such a person is sometimes known as a "news source". A more colloquial term for this is "informant".
Usually, a person is not referred to as a "source" unless they are requesting anonymity, in which case the reporter may refer to their source only as "an anonymous source" (or "an insider", etc.) in the story.
- On the record - the communication is unrestricted
- Background - the information is unrestricted, but the source requests anonymity
- Deep background - the information may not be quoted directly, and the source requests anonymity
- Off the record - nothing in the communication may be repeated to anyone else, including the fact that the communication occurred at all, or whom it was with.
Sometimes, sources are impersonal or unknown. Neil Sheehan received the complete text of the Pentagon Papers on his doorstep, left there by an unknown individual (later revealed to be Daniel Ellsberg). Sources may also engage in disguise and/or voice alteration, nicknames, aliases, or simply not mention their identity, as attempts to ensure their anonymity. In some cases, this may be due in part to lack of trust between sources and reporters (or their news organizations).
Throughout the 20th century, especially in the heyday of newspapers, reporters often could count on the support of their editors and publishers in the refusal to identify an anonymous source. Some courts have upheld the sanctity of the informal privacy agreement between a journalist and his/her anonymous sources as a matter of unoffical confidence, in the belief that this security is imperative to the existence of a free press. During times of national fear, however, both publishers and the courts tend to be less likely to honor this practice.