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Daily Rundown Tackles On Record, On Background, Off Record and Hazy Netherworld of Phrases in Between

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MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown” ran a segment this morning that many journalists and their sources find perpetually confusing – the rules on sourcing information.

“In my view, the term ‘On the record’ everyone can understand,” said NYT reporter Mark Leibovich who appeared in the segment. “Beyond that, any of the gradations…mean nothing.”

Albert Oetgen, managing editor of NBC News’s Washington bureau, has studied the topic and wrote a story on it with “Daily Rundown” co-host Chuck Todd in the The Atlantic that published Monday. The piece’s headline: “When ‘Bite Me’ is ‘Off the Record.’”

Oetgen stressed that terms mean little and reporters should reach a personal understanding with those they cover. “You have to ignore the terms and make the agreement with the people you interview,” he said.

But there’s a wrinkle. The terms mean different things to different people….


Todd weighed in, saying, “It really depends on the person. [Some sources think] off the record, I do expect you to act on the information, but sometimes I may say it’s way way way way off the record.”

Still, Oetgen reasoned that people who are interviewed “will feel more comfortable if there are gradations” in the terms. The group mentioned on background, on deep background, or way, way wayyy off record.

Leibovich said the clearer the better: “You want to make as many things on the record as you can. In Washington people are very very hesitant to speak on the record unless it makes them look good. They want control. It becomes a game…a zero sum game.”

The Atlantic‘s glossary:

•’On The Record.’ Quoting verbatim with attribution: ‘Santa Claus is a fraud,’ said Pete Williams, network Justice and Supreme Court correspondent for NBC.

•’On Background.’ You can use the information without attribution, or with generic attribution: ‘Santa Claus is a fraud,’ said a network correspondent.”

•’Off The Record.’ You know it, you can shop it around, act on it, but you can’t report it, until you get it somewhere else.”

•Deep Background, the shadowy territory between On Background and Off The Record: ‘NBC News has learned that some network correspondents think Santa Claus is a fraud.’”

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