One of the things that I’ve learned since I’ve gotten involved in this business is what the words “off the record” means.
People will tell you things “on background” or “without attribution” meaning that you can use them as long as it is attributed to “a source said” type of thing or as general background information.
“Off the record” is something more blunt. This means you accept information on the condition that you pledge your personal word and honor not to reveal it.
Now if you can get that information from another source that’s different but once you have agreed to “off the record” one’s personal honor and one is obliged to keep that word. That was David Brooks dilemma.
In such a situation he is ethically obliged not to talk (or as Stacy McCain says never burn a source) so I don’t fault him for that…
…BUT it would be interesting to see what his columns about the president looked like after the fact. Did he seem less supportive? Did he give the words of the administration less credence and more doubt? One can’t come out and say “This guy is lying to your face and he told me so!” but you can change the direction of your coverage from admiration to skepticism without breaking your word.
One has an obligation to protect ones source but also to inform the public. Social schedule not withstanding if your priority is to be honorable, you have to find a way to do both.