Here’s a popular journo question: “I’ve read threads about ‘on’ vs. ‘off’ the record, but, for etiquette purposes, how is this determined?”
You’d be surprised how often we hear this question. And not even just from fledgling reporters—veteran journalists struggle with the fine distinctions among the various levels of on-the-record-ness. Navigating this terrain can sometimes be tricky, so we turned for guidance to Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, formerly the deputy editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.
“The distinction between on and off the record isn’t as obvious as most people think,” Cunningham warns. “Two people can have completely different understandings of what the ground rules are.”
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Whenever you interview someone, whether on the phone or in person, your first move is to identify yourself as a reporter and to offer a general explanation of the story you are attempting to write. From that point on, everything the source says is assumed to be on the record unless otherwise stated. But the start of the conversation is the time for the reporter to negotiate the terms. Spell it out clearly so that both of you agree on how the information will be used and who will get credit. And anytime you feel the agreement unraveling, reconfirm to avoid a misunderstanding.
Here’s the common terminology:
On the record: Everything in the conversation can be used and attributed to your source by name and job title. “If there is reason to believe that this person is not media savvy, you might want to explain that what they say may very well be quoted in a news story,” says Cunningham. “I often hear about reporters who don’t clarify this and their sources end up feeling duped.”
Off the record: Nothing the source says during a discussion can be used in any way, shape or form. “You cannot put this into your article,” Cunningham says. But that doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time. “You can shop it around to other sources and see if you can get it on record elsewhere.” If you do decide to take this route, never reveal your original source. “You can also go back to your off-the-record source later in your reporting process and attempt to negotiate things back on the record.”
On background and not for attribution: Though some reporters will argue there’s a shade of difference between these two terms, whatever distinction exists is sufficiently unclear to be meaningless. (After all, the whole point is to make sure both the reporter and source clearly understand the ground rules.)
Essentially, all information received in these contexts can be quoted, but it cannot be attributed to the source by name. Instead, a general and vague title is used such as “White House official” or “assistant to the governor.” Because in some cases a descriptor will end up unintentionally revealing the source’s identity, Cunningham points out, “you have to negotiate this with the person at the time of the interview.”
The generally accepted rule is that off the record and on background must be invoked in advance. So if, for example, George W. Bush says to you, “Let’s go off the record here—I really did make up all that stuff about WMD in Iraq,” you can’t quote him on that. But if he says, “I really did make up all that stuff about WMD in Iraq—wait, that was off the record,” you’re well within your rights to use it.