Jun 13, 2013

What Does ‘Off the Record’ Really Mean?

Dear Q&A Team,

I am putting together a presentation for all the journalists in my office. I want to have a friendly discussion about the meaning of “off the record.” Even though I have my own understanding of the term, I would like to learn of its origin, as well as if there are exceptions to when “off the record” information can be published, etc. It would also be great to share some anecdotes with the team.

Clearing the Record


Dear Clearing the Record,

That is an interesting topic for a presentation! Here are three ProfNet experts who answer all your questions about the term “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 said. “However, it might lead you to other sources or a better understanding.”

Establishing the Terms of “Off the Record”

Skeel thinks it is always wise to establish upfront that these are the parameters, 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. Though she warns that you 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 a situation where a source forgets to ask to be “off the record” but remembers later on after revealing information, you have two choices, suggests Mazzella. If you are dealing with a politician and he/she makes this mistake, “you can burn him/her or get an IOU.”

Mazzella continues, “On a beat, 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 reputation among his or her peers, if they learn about this.
  • 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.”

“Off the Record” Anecdotes

Here is Skeel’s anecdote from when she was a cub reporter:

“I remember being at a party where someone I met, who knew I was a journalist, told me a great story. When I said I’d like to publish it, they quaked and insisted this was all ‘off the record.’ In my book at the time, information was only ‘off the record’ if you agreed on that ground in advance. Some journalists will simply ‘burn’ their sources and run with such a story, but I am pleased to say that I did not. Despite his promises to let me run the story when the time was right, he never came through. I think any reading of ‘off the record’ should be combined with your personal moral values. Rules are not a moral shield.”

Friedman also shared an anecdote from her days as a reporter:

“Back in the ‘80s when I worked in Milwaukee, there were rumors surfacing about drug use in baseball. The assistant news director knew I was friendly with a few players and their wives and asked me if I could find out what was going on. Some of these people shared confidential information with me but made it clear they did not want their names associated with the story. As a reporter, I knew it was a great story as well as how to get it. As a professional and a friend, I didn’t want to betray anyone’s trust ruin relationships or damage my own credibility. So I refused to cover it or share what I knew with my newsroom. I simply told my superiors that it could be a story worth pursuing but they would have to assign someone else. I never shared what I was told or where the information came from. When the story broke, my sources who had provided some direction were never mentioned, because the reporter who ended up covering the story didn’t know them. He got information from different sources on his own.”

Mazzella’s advice to remember: “The press is the watchdog and we need to do the best job of getting information to the public.”

I hope your presentation turns into a great discussion among your team. Good luck!

– The Q&A Team

Written by Polina Opelbaum, editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources.  The Q&A Team is published biweekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Polina, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

Every other week, The Q&A Team answers questions from ProfNet readers with advice from our large network of experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you’ve been wondering that none of your colleagues can answer? Please send it to polina.opelbaum@prnewswire.com

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