In Washington, the phrase “off the record” is tossed about like candy on Halloween. It’s often the only reason someone will agree to speak to a reporter, and for a city that largely operates in secrecy, reporters here find it to be a daily necessity. The tricky thing is, it means wildly different things to different people. So we reached out to journalists, bureau chiefs and others around town to find out what it means to them.
Toby Harnden, Washington Bureau Chief, London’s The Sunday Times: “It’s a bar at the Hay-Adams. It’s also a term used in Washington by people who are about to tell you something really boring that you probably knew anyway, or was blindingly obvious, and you wouldn’t want to publish. But if you did want to publish it and you agreed to it being off the the record (it’s an agreement the journalist has to be part of) then 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. However, that’s often not what people intend when they say ‘off the record.’ They often mean “on background” – that is, that the information can be used in subsequent reporting and even quoted as long as their name isn’t attached to it. So I often follow up an ‘off the record’ comment by saying, ‘OK if I use this information and just don’t attribute it to you by name?’ Nine times out of 10, they’ll say yes. But I don’t feel free to do that with information designated ‘off the record’ unless I have that subsequent exchange. Actually, if you then say, ‘I’d really like to use this information, but our rules are very restrictive on the use of anonymous sources,’ five times out of 10 they’ll put it on the record – better still.”
See the rest including a bonus anonymous response…
Stephen Tschida, reporter, WJLA: “OTR means ‘I am telling you this, but it is not for reporting.’ Sometimes OTR info is wrong. Now “on background” is a different story.”
Charles Johnson, contributor, The Daily Caller and freelance reporter. “Whenever someone asks something to be off the record, I recoil. As a writer, the whole purpose of the enterprise is the record. I push them for on background, of course, but sometimes that won’t do and so I end the conversation. Usually I gently remind the person I’m chatting with that he, in the words of Robert Novak, can be a source or a target and that’s sufficient to get him talking. Occasionally I feel compelled to go down the ‘Off the Record’ route in the pursuit of the story. Off the Record must be negotiated and it is a two-way street. If I catch my source chatting to another friendlier reporter to their cause, I stop honoring it. I tell sources this ahead of time by email. I also think that you need two OTRs before you publish anything. OTR comments are not to be shared in the pursuit of anything less than truth. I find it very distasteful when Washington or New York journalists trade on their access to report insidery gossip in a way that suits them.”
Anonymous reporter: “I’ve always thought of off the record as two things — something you are told that you can’t use from someone, but it’s meant to help point you in the right direction. If you’re told that and it’s backed up by a different source than the original off the record source, then it’s fair game. It’s also just your friends bullshitting and they know that you’re a reporter and they don’t want you using it, so they say ‘off the record.’”
Andy Gross, producer, NBC Universal. “Basically, as a producer, everybody is on the record since I’m there and the camera is there, the cameraman, maybe a sound man, and sometimes even a correspondent. So nobody ever tries the old ‘this is off the record’ which is a pure BS cop-out anyway.”