What Does “Need to Know Basis” Mean?

Have you ever heard someone say that something is on a “need to know basis”? Are you familiar with this term or have you always wondered what it meant? The English language is full of phrases and terminologies that may make no sense for some people, especially those who aren’t native English speakers.

But there’s no need to despair; you can still add this phrase to your list of everyday vocabulary so you can start using it like a true English master.

What Does It Mean?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the phrase “on a need-to-know basis” refers to when someone chooses to tell you certain information only when you need to know them. If that person thinks there’s no need for you to know the facts, then you definitely won’t know anything.

To make things easier to grasp, we have a couple of examples for you to think about. Imagine that you’re a delivery driver for a top-secret organization. Your particular role means that you’re on a need-to-know basis when it comes to the items or parcels you deliver. What does this mean? To put it simply, you don’t have to know what’s inside the box or parcel, all you need to do is deliver it successfully.

Unless there’s some kind of toxic component in the cargo or if it will explode at the slightest road bump, your boss won’t feel the need to inform you about the specificities of the cargo, except for where to pick it up and where you need to deliver it to.

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One important thing you need to keep in mind is that the words “want” and “need” are completely different from one another. You may want to know what’s inside the parcel because you’re intrigued, but there’s really no need to know. Besides, knowing what’s inside won’t change the fact that you need to deliver it to someone.

For many people, “need to know basis” has also evolved into a slang phrase for “none of your business.” If someone tells you that certain information isn’t provided because it’s on a need-to-know basis, that means it has nothing to do with you and you should probably stop asking questions.

Usage Examples

  • Details regarding the documents are private and on a need-to-know basis. Only the relevant department will have the full details.
  • You’re not allowed to disclose this sensitive information to other people. Remember: this is strictly on a need-to-know basis.
  • The company worked on a need-to-know basis, so some employees were kept in the dark regarding certain issues.


We all learn something new every day, and we hope that you were able to get something useful out of this article. Perhaps you could even use this phrase the next time you meet up with some friends or host a meeting for the company you work for. Did you find our explanation useful? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, especially if you have any questions or clarifications!