What Is an Anonymous Source?

And When Is it Okay to Use One?

Former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt
Former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, the anonymous source known for decades only as "Deep Throat," pictured in 2005.

Justin Sulliavn / Getty Images

An anonymous source is someone who is interviewed by a reporter but does not want to be named in the article the reporter writes.

Why Use an Anonymous Source?

The use of anonymous sources has long been a controversial issue in journalism. Many editors frown upon using anonymous sources, for the obvious reason that they are less credible than sources who speak on the record.

Think about it: if someone isn't willing to put their name behind what they say to a reporter, what assurance do we have that what the source says is accurate? Could the source be manipulating the reporter, perhaps for some ulterior motive?

Those are certainly legitimate concerns, and any time a reporter wants to use an anonymous source in a story, he or she generally first discusses it with an editor to decide whether doing so is necessary and ethical.

But anyone who has worked in the news business knows that in some situations, anonymous sources may be the only way of obtaining important information. This is especially true of investigative stories in which sources may have little to gain and much to lose by speaking publicly to a reporter.

For instance, let's say you are investigating allegations that the mayor of your town is siphoning money from the town treasury. You have several sources in town government who are willing to confirm this, but they fear being fired if they go public. They are willing to speak to you only if they are not identified in your story.

Clearly, this isn't an ideal situation; reporters and editors always prefer to use on-the-record sources. But faced with the situation in which vital information can only be obtained from sources anonymously, a reporter sometimes has little choice.

Of course, a reporter should never base a story entirely on anonymous sources. He or she should always try to verify information from an anonymous source by talking to sources who will speak publicly, or through other means. For instance, you might try to confirm the story about the mayor by checking the Treasury's financial records.

Deep Throat

The most famous anonymous source of all time was the one used by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to help them uncover the Watergate scandal in the Nixon administration. The source, known only as "Deep Throat," provided tips and information to Woodward and Bernstein as they dug into allegations that the White House had engaged in criminal activity. However, Woodward and Bernstein made a point of always trying to check information Deep Throat had given them with other sources.

Woodward promised Deep Throat he would never reveal his identity, and for decades after President Nixon's resignation, many in Washington speculated about Deep Throat's identity. Then, in 2005, Vanity Fair magazine ran an article revealing that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, an associate director of the FBI during the Nixon administration. This was confirmed by Woodward and Bernstein, and the 30-year ministry about Deep Throat's identity finally ended. Felt died in 2008.

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Your Citation
Rogers, Tony. "What Is an Anonymous Source?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-anonymous-source-2073764. Rogers, Tony. (2023, April 5). What Is an Anonymous Source? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-anonymous-source-2073764 Rogers, Tony. "What Is an Anonymous Source?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-anonymous-source-2073764 (accessed June 10, 2023).