Is there a single journalistic quirk more likely to cause post-publication tsuris than the varying taxonomies of “off the record,” “background,” and “deep background”?

This week’s reason to raise the question, is, of course, the controversy surrounding the comments of Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Or more precisely, the controversy behind the controversy: Was Reid “burned” when his quotes on how Obama’s non-“Negro dialect” and light skin increased his chances of becoming our first black president appeared in Game Change, the new book reporting the remarks?

That’s the question facing New York magazine’s John Heilemann and Time’s Mark Halperin, the book’s authors. (And, unfortunately, CJR won’t be able to ask it. Kate Pruss Pinnick, their publicist, says that “the guys are only doing one interview on their methodology”—and it won’t be with us.)

This is a very messy situation, so let’s start by laying out what they’ve said elsewhere about their sourcing agreement, starting with the book’s author’s note:

All of our interviews—from those with junior staffers to those with the candidates themselves—were conducted on a ‘deep background’ basis, which means we agreed not to identify the subjects as sources in any way.

It’s helpful that the authors, after introducing the term “deep background,” offer their own definition, because, as is usually the case with attribution standards, there isn’t a universally understood definition of the term.

But their standards seem to be consistent with the following scenario. If Joe Schmoe spoke to them, the substance of his remarks is on the record, but the source of the information is not. He should never find the words “Joe Schmoe told us…” introducing the information he passed on, or the words “Joe Schome told us he said…” introducing a quote. But he could certainly find all the information—even information that a reasonable reader would assume only Joe Schmoe had access to—relayed in minute detail.

It’s not hard to see how this sort of agreement can get very weird, very quickly. Even if the authors never tell you who told them about a scene, it’s hard not to venture an accurate guess. See, for example, New York’s Halperin/Heilemann excerpt on the Edwards meltdown, where the Rielle Hunter-related exploits of Jonathan Brumberger, a young staffer, are detailed alongside his internal monologue, and his one on one interactions with the candidate. Gee, I wonder who talked?

There are some internal thoughts in the paragraph containing the Reid remarks, but context around the Reid quotes make it less clear who passed on his words:

He was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.

Given the tenses and phrasing, one likely guess for the source of the quotes would have been someone other than Reid—a staffer, aide, or consultant or some such who heard Reid muse about race as Obama considered or undertook his run.

But on Monday morning Greg Sargent of the Plum Line reported that the majority leader’s office confirmed that the comments were made by Reid himself in an interview with Halperin and Heilemann. Politico’s Mike Allen and Glenn Thrush later reported that the taped interview occurred “shortly after” the election.

While the authors identify the “Negro”-laced comments as having been offered “privately,” which they certainly were, the book doesn’t say to whom they were offered, or when. We now know that, according to Reid’s office, the quotes come from the authors’ first-hand knowledge. But readers, seeing the phrasing on the page, would have no idea of the quote’s source—it could have been, as seemed quite possible on first reading, that Reid offered the observation to someone else, who then passed it on to the authors.

So you see? By not using the words “Reid told us,” they’ve lived up to their (now rather narrow seeming) commitment not to identify the source of any information.

The consequences of the authors’ perspective on their agreement, if taken to its logical conclusion, are quite bizarre. Under their understanding, the authors would be justified in printing their full interview transcript with Reid, or anyone else they’d interviewed, as long as they didn’t identify themselves as the questioners—instead saying that the remarks had been offered privately, or to some generic “reporters,” or “in Washington,” or some other dodge phrase.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.