“Not for attribution” refers to a specific kind of arrangement between a journalist and a politician or anyone passing along information to that journalist.
Journalists make a range of different arrangements with their sources, setting out exactly how the journalists will be allowed to disseminate the information which they learn from those sources. “Not for attribution” is probably the strictest arrangement. Information which is learned at a “not for attribution” briefing can be difficult to report on. A “not for attribution” briefing might inform a journalist’s thinking and set him or her on the right track for gathering information, but the briefing itself will not feature directly in an article.
Journalists who get a “not for attribution” briefing from a politician or another official may use the information they learn, but they may not say where they learned that information. They may not use a direct quote from the briefer. In fact, they may not even say that they were briefed by anyone at all.
When a journalist is briefed “on background,” they may use a direct quote from the briefing, but they may not use the briefer’s name. Instead, they are expected to attribute the quote to a “government official,” or an “anonymous source close to the White House,” for example.
William Safire described the constraints of “not for attribution” as follows:
For example, if Mikhail Gorbachev whispered to me at a Kremlin cocktail party, ”World War III starts tomorrow, just after the kickoff of your Army-Navy game,” I could not write ”According to an informed Soviet official, World War III will start tomorrow.” Instead, under the Lindley Rule, I would have to lead with a sprightly ”The nation’s military leaders, assembled at tomorrow’s Army-Navy game, will not be around for halftime festivities. . . .” The news would have to come on my personal authority, not from my source.
This said, there is, of course, some variability in how the term “not for attribution” is used. Some journalism schools argue that in fact, “not for attribution” means that journalists may use a direct quote, but may not give the name of the person who briefed them; instead, the reporter is expected to refer to their source as, say, “an anonymous government official.” The same schools argue that “on background” means that quotes may not be used.
Others argue that “not for attribution” means that the reporter may not identify their source and that they may not report on the information learned unless they find a second source to confirm it. The long and the short of it is that there are virtually endless interpretations of terms like “background” and “not for attribution.” The best solution, as NYU’s School of Journalism suggests, is to communicate expectations as clearly as possible ahead of time:
The problem with the phrase “off the record” is that many people, reporters and the general public alike, misunderstand its precise meaning. These days many interviewees think “off the record” is largely synonymous with “on background” or “not for attribution.” There is so much murkiness about what “off the record” means that it is essential that the reporter and source agree on a definition before beginning an “off the record” portion of an interview.