What Does Off the Record Mean?

Discover what does off the record mean and how does it apply when you are working closely with a source as a journalist. 

Off the record refers to an agreement between a source and a journalist in relation to certain statements made being neither reportable nor attributable. It is a well-known phrase commonly used in journalism.

To go off the record is a request made by either a source or a journalist relating to the transaction of information with the caveat that that information is neither attributed nor distributed publicly.

When a reporter agrees to listen to a source’s statement off the record, the ethical thing to do is to neither report nor repeat that information. Acclaimed journalist Indira A.R. Lakshmanan said when a journalist gets information off the record, whether they publish that information or not is a “no-brainer”

She added: “They can’t report the information, nor can they repeat it to a journalist who intends to report it. Breaking our agreements — especially for stories that aren’t of huge public interest — gives journalism a bad name at a time when public trust in our industry is already low”. 

Before reading more, check out our guide to the best apps for journalists.

When Is A Statement Off The Record Work?

What does off the record mean?
For information to be off the record, there has to be an agreement in place

Former Tampa Bay Times reporter, Tom Jones, discussed the process of being off the record in an article on Poynter.

He said: “A source should ask a reporter first if something can be off the record. Then the reporter can agree or refuse. The source then can decide whether or not they want to share that information”.

In the article, Jones was discussing an incident where Washington Post opinion columnist Jennifer Rubin sent an email to Politico reporter Alex Thompson. The title of the email was ‘OFF THE RECORD’

Thompson published the correspondence with the following justification: “Since we never agreed to conduct such an off-the-record conversation, we are now publishing it in full”.

And indeed, according to Jones’ definition of when the rules of off the record apply, many believe Thompson was within his rights to publish this mail.

That is because only one element of the process was completed. There was a request from the source to go off the record, but the reporter didn’t yet accept that.

Discussing the idea, The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reiterated this point. In relation to the publishing of the emails, she tweeted: “For the uninitiated – and the initiated pretending they don’t know because it’s a fun way to slam a reporter – off the record is an agreement. Don’t send an email saying OTR – especially when you’re ostensibly in journalism… and not wait for the reporter to agree”.

Understanding this concept is key if you want to write like a journalist. For information to be off the record, there has to be an agreement in place. Thus, the person requesting that a statement is off the record should only make that statement once the explicit agreement is there.

And if the example above proves one thing, it’s that the agreement should be made in plain English, with clear parameters, which both parties understand. That way there is no room for potential misunderstanding. 

In an article that aimed to come to a clear definition of the term, The New York Times gave the following advice to journalists: “As a general principle, a reporter’s best course of action is to establish jargon-free parameters in plain English at the start: Can a source be quoted by name? Can we use the information if we leave out the name? Can we at least describe the source’s job?”

What’s The Point In ‘Off the Record?’

What’s the point in ‘off the record'?
If you agree that something is off the record, you cannot publish that information

Former deputy editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham, pointed to one of the key advantages of going off the record during an interview with MediaBistro.com. He touched upon how getting information, even if you can’t report it, can send you in the right direction when working on a story. 

He said: “Nothing the source says during a discussion (off the record) can be used in any way, shape or form. You cannot put this into your article, (but) you can shop it around to other sources and see if you can get it on record elsewhere. 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.”

Going off the record can give you information that you would not otherwise have. Of course, if you agree that something is off the record, you cannot publish that information. However, it can send you in the right direction to investigate other sources.

Another key use for going off the record is you get to know and understand a source more than you would otherwise. When off the record, they will likely become unguarded and show more of their true selves. 

Matt Flegenheimer, writing for The New York Times, touched upon this point in an article discussing different journalistic processes. He wrote: “There can be benefits for a reporter (going off the record), including the chance to see newsmakers in an unguarded setting. Do they know what they’re talking about? Do they seem overconfident? The chat is off the record, but the impressions last”.

What Is The Difference Between Background And Off The Record?

On background and off the record are two terms often mixed-up. Regarding sources being on the record, off the record, and providing background, there is no exact science for reporters, hence the importance of plain language for these types of agreements. 

One reporter may have a different understanding than another about these terms. This was a point made by New York Times political reporter Matt Flegenheimer in an article on the subject. 

He once wrote: “There is no universally agreed-upon meaning for many of these terms — and The (New York) Times has no precise descriptions in its own internal guidelines — making it difficult to sketch out even working definitions”.

However, Flegenheimer’s definition of ‘background’ stands up to any other one we have found online. 

He describes it as “to mean that the information can be published, but only under conditions agreed upon with the source”, before adding “there can be good reasons for this — say, government employees sharing news-making documents that they would only volunteer without a name attached”.

For some sources, the information provided ‘on background’ can only be used to establish context and not be attributed at all. However, just like ‘off the record’, this has to be set as an agreement between the source and the reporter.

Thus, the key difference between off the record and background is that off the record cannot be reported on at all if agreed upon, whereas background can be reported under certain agreed conditions.

The Value Of Going Off The Record

Of course, if you allow a source to go off the record, you must be careful. Those sources may want to share information off the record just so they can influence the news cycle and not be accountable for that information. The aforementioned Indira A.R. Lakshmanan touched upon this in an article in Poynter

She said: “No one tells a reporter something without a motive. (Sources) want to influence our coverage”.

Unsurprisingly, this was a point echoed in The New York Times by Flegenheimer, who added that “sources will have their agendas, trying to shape future coverage to their liking”.

Thus, it is good advice to any budding reporter to think twice before agreeing to go off the record with a source. Of course, in rare instances, it can have its advantages. However, it’s not the ideal scenario and should not be viewed as such. For more advice, check out our guide to journalism skills with learning.