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… Read more