Once again, the Wall Street Journal starts the rumor mill spinning

[UPDATE: The Journal‘s story changed in important ways overnight. See WSJ Verizon iPhone rumor — Round 2.]

In a brief report posted Wednesday, the
Wall Street Journal
revisited a rumor its reporters have been pursuing — and perpetuating — for more than six months.

In March, Yukari Iwatani Kane and Ting-I Tsai sent Apple shares soaring with a report that hinted but did not say that Apple AAPL was building an iPhone for Verizon VZ . Instead it quoted unnamed “people briefed on the matter” to the effect that the company was manufacturing an iPhone around the CDMA technology that Verizon uses — as opposed to the GSM protocol AT&T T employs. Mass production of the CDMA iPhone, according to these sources, was set to begin in September.

On Wednesday, Kane and Tsai returned to the story, citing unnamed “people briefed by Apple.” The schedule this go-round has been pushed back a few months. Mass production is now set to begin before the end of 2010 — in time for sales to start in the first quarter of 2011.

But in this week’s item — as with the story last March — the reporters never actually call it a Verizon iPhone. Instead, it’s “Verizon-ready,” “based on an alternative technology … used by Verizon” and being produced on a schedule “that would allow Verizon Wireless to sell the smartphone early next year.”

Why the ambiguity? We suspect it’s because the reporters don’t actually know that Verizon will ever get the new phone. There are plenty of other carriers in the U.S. and overseas that could use a CDMA iPhone, and Apple could be building it for them.

It’s pretty clear that the Journal has been spoon fed these stories. What’s not so clear is why.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]