Within newsrooms, the question of when it’s appropriate to use anonymous sources is frequently debated. It’s one of the many kinds of conversations—crucial and complicated—that’s not typically visible to the public. But recently, anonymity has bubbled over into national conversation, too, amplified by a president who frequently condemns it.
There was the anonymous New York Times op-ed by a senior White House official. The publication of Bob Woodward’s Fear. The anonymously sourced New York Times story that could potentially lead to Rod Rosenstein’s departure from the Justice Department. In a November 1925 Atlantic essay, the British novelist E. M. Forster grappled with this very subject: Anonymity, he argued, is best suited for fiction—and dangerous in newspapers.
Forster began his essay by presenting the two, sometimes overlapping, functions of words: to “give information” or “create atmosphere.” While the former applies to everything from stop signs to newspapers, Forster wrote, the latter encompasses the wide realm of literature. Poetry has “absolutely no use,” the novelist claimed. But fiction has use in its efforts to convey deep truths about the world; with fiction, the reader suspends “ordinary judgments” and enters “a universe that only answers to its own laws, supports itself, internally coheres, and has a new standard of truth.” Forster contended that there was no need for authorship in this universe:
The argument that words matter more than their writer has a long history, in journalism as well as fiction. In the mid-19th century, most magazines, The Atlantic included, didn’t publish bylines at all. “The names of contributors will be given out when the names are worth more than the articles,” the Atlantic co-founder Ralph Waldo Emerson once declared. Less than 10 years later, that policy changed: Starting in 1862, the magazine’s second editor, James T. Fields, published authors’ names semi-annually. In 1870, the magazine began printing names at the end of each article, part of Fields’s effort to commercialize The Atlantic’s authors. But even in 1925, when Forster wrote his essay in The Atlantic, it was still standard for newspaper writers to forgo bylines, aside from a few first-person pieces. Though the practice of anonymously authored nonfiction persists in some publications—notably The Economist—the majority of published material today includes a byline, chiefly for the sake of transparency.