Jun 13, 2013

What Does ‘Off the Record’ Really Mean?

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Editor’s Note: This blog post was reviewed and updated on December 23, 2015 for clarity and accuracy.

The phrase “off the record” has caused confusion, frustration, and a loss of credibility – many times over – for people on both sides of the PR and media aisle.

However, it is a phrase that can be very useful in certain situations. Problems arise when a source and a journalist have different understandings of what “off the record” means.

To help clear the air, our ProfNet team asked three media experts to share their “on-the-record” thoughts about going “off the record.”

The Meaning of “Off the Record”

Donald Mazzella, COO and editorial director of Information Strategies, Inc., explains the origin of the term: “Merriman Smith, the old national UPI correspondent, told me it was a term from the Franklin Roosevelt presidency, where he would bring reporters into his office and tell them stuff and say, ‘Remember, boys, this is off the record.’”

Today, when people say “off the record” to a reporter, they typically mean they don’t want the reporter to attribute the information to them or to use it, says Karen Friedman, former television news reporter of 20 years and author of Shut Up and Say Something. Often, says Friedman, people actually do want the information uncovered or reported, “as long as no one knows it came from them.”

Shirley Skeel, a journalist for more than 20 years who reported finance news for papers such as the Daily Mail and The Telegraph in London, explains how this term was similarly understood by journalists in London.

“’Off the record’ meant you could not use the information given to you in print,” she says. “However, it might lead you to other sources or a better understanding.”

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Establishing the Terms of “Off the Record”

Skeel thinks it is always wise to establish upfront the parameters of your conversation, as well as explain the meaning of “off the record.”

“Still, as all reporters far prefer information ‘on the record,’ it can be a tricky thing to know if and when you should suggest that this is an ‘off the record’ or ‘for attribution only’ conversation,” she says.

“This situation usually arises naturally, as a source will show their reluctance to speak, and the reporter might entice them to speak either ‘not for attribution’ or ‘off the record’ and explain what each means. If this issue does not come up until late in the conversation, I think a journalist should allow the entire conversation to be whatever the source insists upon.”

“But, if you are not going to honor ‘off the record’, you need to make that clear to someone before they start spilling information,” says Friedman.

Ways to Post “Off the Record” Information

When Friedman was in a situation where a source said “off the record,” she would not use their name, but it would typically lead her to find information or sources that would confirm, deny or discuss the information. However, she does recommend that everyone consider the original source of the information.

“There are trustworthy sources who will tip you off to a lead, which enables you to pursue the story and break information. But there are other people in the community who may not be close to a situation and use the term (‘off the record’) because they’ve heard it thrown around,” explains Friedman. “It is still up to the reporter to check out every lead, whether it’s on or off the record, to get second and third sources and to make sure the information is confirmed.”

As far as telling the sources you pursue about the original source, Friedman says it depends on the situation: “If Joe Smith shared information ‘off the record’ with me, I would never disclose him as my source to anyone. However, if Joe Smith told me something ‘off the record’ and specifically said, ‘Contact so-and-so and tell him I sent you,’ then I would do that.”

After getting information from another source, Mazzella goes with the second source for attribution. But as a matter of courtesy and to maintain relationships, he always goes back to the first source and says he has the information from another source, and asks if they want to go on the record. His recommendation is to always keep relationships going.

“Not for Attribution”

Besides “off the record,” there is another important term to understand — “not for attribution.”

Skeel defines it as meaning that you can use the source’s information directly in your copy, “but you have to identify that this person cannot be named, and, preferably, why not.”

As with “off the record,” you have to establish the terms of “not for attribution” prior to having a discussion with the source, advises Skeel. “A journalist should work out with their source exactly which information falls in which category.”

In situations where a source forgets to ask to be “off the record,” but remembers after revealing information, Mazzella advises: “Unless the story is too good or too important to ignore, you give the source the benefit. For people who are less press savvy, I always try to err on the side of letting them off the hook. Every situation is different, but we’re all in for the long haul — especially on a beat.”

Consequences of Sharing “Off the Record” Information

Skeel describes the possible repercussions for sharing “off the record” information:

  • Loss of a source, maybe even many sources if word gets around.
  • Loss of the journalist’s reputation among peers.
  • Depending on the editor and publication, there is a chance the journalist might even lose their job. (That would be an extreme case, but it is undoubtedly a serious breach of journalistic ethics.)
  • Even worse, the person quoted could be seriously damaged. They might lose their job, their reputation, etc.

“In a lighter story, it may only result in a personal grudge by the source — but the breach of ethics is still serious,” says Skeel.

Friedman agrees with Skeel, saying, “The bottom line is you have to protect your sources or they will no longer be your sources. They may also tell others that you are not trustworthy and then others will not share information with you either.”

When a subject matter expert and journalist have a relationship built on trust, everyone benefits; and working together means keeping communication open and understanding each other’s preferences. Download our guide Best Practices for Creating Media-Friendly Content for more tips on working with journalists, bloggers, and other influencers.

Written by Polina Opelbaum, a former editor at ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. 

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