Does “Off The Record” Exist?

I do a lot of media training workshops for executives, companies and organizations. They know I was a reporter for twenty years and did a lot of investigative journalism. So, the question I get the most is this:

“Should I ever go ‘off the record’ with a reporter?”

The Short Answer: No.

First of all, as a journalist I hated when people wanted to go off the record.  I need information I can use. Getting a news tip is one thing, but expecting to tell me something juicy and expecting me to do nothing with that information is ridiculous. I’m a reporter.

No. I don’t recommend ever going off the record to talk about your company or organization. Only tell a journalist something you would want to appear in a story with your name attached to it. I will obviously explain in detail why I take this position. And, I will begin by telling you what I ask my clients after telling them they should never go off the record.

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What do YOU think ‘off the record’ means?

The answers vary incredibly — and most often I don’t get a clear or informed answer to the question (in fairness, why would they be expected to know this?). And, this is the first insight into why I say don’t ever go off the record with a reporter — because most people don’t have a clue what that actually means.

Instead, many participants talk about movies or television programs they’ve seen where “off the record” relationships are used — they talk about “All the President’s Men” and “House of Cards” — story lines built heavily on the trusted relationships between important people and journalists. I’m a big fan of both — but real life has real life consequences.

Understanding the Journalist’s Perspective:

As a reporter, my personal understanding of “off the record” was always that it was information being shared with me for the purposes of context to a story I was working on. I was fully aware that the person sharing the information was usually trying to manipulate my coverage — trying to alter the tone or focus of the story (the grey zone beyond facts). I mean, why else would they be taking the risk of meeting with a journalist? This was a tactic that most good journalists are aware of and we always chuckled at the suggestion they were doing us a favour.

I was also under the belief that I could use this information if I was able to verify it from another source (or two) and not attribute it in any way to the original source who met me off the record.

But that was just one reporter’s perspective. They can vary.

The fact is that even in journalism circles, there is no hard and fast rule, clearly stating the meaning of “off the record”. Everyone gets it generally speaking — but the Devil is in the details. And, as I’ll illustrate next, interpretations truly are vast.

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Here’s what journalism legend Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford in ‘All the President’s Men’), had to say about it at a meeting with the Poynter Institute back in 2011:

“…if somebody tells you something is off the record, some people think that you can lock it in a box by saying ‘off the record’ and it will never appear in print. If that were the case, you’d have people like Nixon saying, ‘Off the record, I did it all,’ and then you could never use it. It would be absurd.”

In a recent column on MediaBistro, definitions of “off the record” varied. For example, here were just a couple of interpretations:

Toby Harnden, Washington Bureau Chief, London’s The Sunday Times:

“…you could use the information but not attribute it to anyone by name or affiliation or quote it directly.”

Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today:

“In my view, ‘off the record’ means you can’t use the information in a story and you can’t use the information in reporting – for instance, going to a second source and asking him or her to confirm what you learned off-the-record from the first source.” 

Most major news organizations have guidelines for their reporters to follow. But, while the overarching theme is the same, the actual words used and some key points do change from news outlet to news outlet:

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) publishes it’s Journalistic Standards and Practices Handbook for its employees online. On this subject, here’s what it tells reporters in terms of “off the record”:

“Before we agree to any conditions that would limit our use of information, we are explicit about what those conditions are. We also come to agreement with the source before the information is shared. Most commonly, information is either on the record, not for attribution, or off the record. However, not everyone understands these terms in the same way, which is why conditions are explained, immediately and clearly….Before a confidential source is used in a story or a story is published based on the information provided, the managing editor must be told who the source is, and what the agreement entails.”


Meantime, across the border in the U.S, NPR says this about it:

“Individual NPR journalists — reporters, producers, bloggers and others — do not on their own have the authority to assure any individual that information he gives us anonymously will be reported on our airwaves or by NPR.org. For sure, sometimes in the course of reporting we gather important information that a source will only reveal if the conversation is “off the record.” But the decision as to whether that information will be reported by NPR can only be made in consultation with an editor. As the level of importance of the information rises, so should the level of editor who is pulled into the conversation. There is no hard-and-fast rule. When in doubt, editors should always err on the side of caution and consult with the next person above them. If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.”

As you can see, the language is all in the same ball-park but there are some slightly difference nuances and interpretations depending on the media outlet and the reporter. That doesn’t make it bad. It doesn’t make it poorly-intentioned. It doesn’t make it deceptive. It just makes it different.

And, to make things more fuzzy, Roy Greenslade of the Guardian Newspaper wrote a column called “Why speaking to journalists ‘off the record’ doesn’t guarantee anonymity” where he discusses situations where one media outlet may honour the off the record agreement but another media outlet might ‘out’ the source if they can figure out (the journalism world is small, they run in the same circles and are very good at deduction).

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I will give the final word to journalism legend, Seymour Hersh, whom I was fortunate enough to see during a panel discussion at an investigative journalism workshop in Washington where he shared the stage with Bob Woodward. This quote is from 1976 and was captured in a great blog on the subject by Jim Romenesko:

“Theoretically, off the record means you can’t use it. Most people think off the record means you can use it but there can’t be any connection whatsoever to them. During Watergate I had one lawyer say, “off-off-off the record,” and I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it. You have a real problem whether to use it. Most of the time you try to clarify. It’s different with everyone. It’s complicated.”

It’s complicated. Exactly. Well put, Seymour. It’s not simple. It’s not even clear according to the journalists themselves. In newsrooms around the world every day, very complicated conversations and debates are happening about what to do with information obtained “off the record”.

So, What Does This “Off The Record” Ambiguity Mean For You?

If the field of journalism views ‘off the record’ as something that requires complicated conversations and isn’t laid out clearly, I wouldn’t recommend risking your personal or corporate reputation by assuming no one will find out who gave the media this information.

Although your name coming out is highly unlikely, reporters are people just like everyone else. For example, they can have too much to drink at a party and accidentally let a name slip. Someone overhears it and puts it out on Twitter anonymously or says it anonymously on a newspaper comments section. With the evolution of social media, ‘off the record’ has become way more complicated then when Seymour Hersh spoke about it in 1976.

If it is vital that the information be reported for whatever reason — but it can’t in any way be connected to you — there are always other methods of getting that information to the reporter that doesn’t involve your name.

“Off the record” sounds great in movies….but in real life, when talking to a journalist, simply assume it will show up in print.


More recommended blog posts:

30 Ways To Piss Off A Reporter

Lessons Learned – Harper’s “War on the Media”

How To Prepare For a Public Relations Crisis

The New Politician’s Guide To Not Getting Killed By Reporters

There Is Life After Journalism

The “Badger” Is Back!

There’s Much To Learn In The Political Matrix