Why Going “Off The Record” Is A Dumb Idea

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 21, 2011 – 6:56 AM

“Off-the-record” may be the single most misunderstood journalism term you will ever encounter.

Journalists don’t really understand off-the-record either – or more precisely, they can’t agree on what it means. If you speak to ten different journalists, you will probably hear ten different definitions.

They don’t agree on the meanings of “not for attribution” or “on background” either. In fact, one survey found that even journalists working for the same news organization have widely divergent views of what those commonly-used terms actually mean.

Even websites about journalism – such as those hosted by The Poynter Institute, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the American Journalism Review – offer little information on what the terms mean.

If journalists themselves can’t agree on the definition, you’re going to get in trouble if you rely on those terms to forge an agreement with a reporter. So banish them from your vocabulary entirely.

You probably shouldn’t be speaking off-the-record anyway. Although most reporters keep their word, some break their agreements with sources. Even well-intentioned reporters can get overruled by their editors. And courts don’t recognize agreements between a reporter and a source as a sacred trust – judges can force journalists to disclose their sources under threat of imprisonment.

If you choose to proceed with an off-the-record interview anyway, you should keep the following four tips in mind:

  1. Consult with a communications professional – either in your own company, organization, or agency – or with an external firm, preferably one with crisis communications capabilities. You may be unaware of the landmines that exist in your specific case.
  2. Consider your relationship with the reporter. Journalists you know well and who have treated you fairly for several years are generally safer risks than reporters you are working with for the first time.
  3. Ask the reporter to define exactly what off-the-record means to him or her, preferably in writing.
  4. Make any agreements with a reporter in advance of the interview. You can’t say something interesting and then suddenly declare it off the record.

Remember: Regardless of any agreement you make, you may still be identified by name as the source. Therefore, the most prudent advice is to remain on-the-record at all times. Even if your name isn’t used, the words a reporter uses to describe your position may make your identity perfectly clear.

Unless you’re fully prepared to take that risk, don’t ever speak off-the-record.

Have you or a client ever spoken off-the-record? How did it go? Please leave a comment.

Related: If You Go Off The Record, Don’t Die.

Related: The Seven Times You Should Turn Down a Media Interview

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Comments (3)

  1. By Four (More) Ground Rules For Working With Reporters | Mr. Media Training:

    […] Going Off The Record: Don’t speak off the record unless you not only agree on definitions, but you trust the reporter not to publish it anyway. Some […]

  2. By There’s no such thing as off the record anymore « Public Affairs Journalism:

    […] Although this is a general definition of “off the record”, it’s not necessarily the correct one. In fact, one of the other major problems with dealing with “off the record” is several journalists are entirely sure as to what it actually means. For this reason, even those studying public relations urge their proteges to stay on the record.  […]

  3. By Kim Possible:

    Yeah – I wanted to be anonymous – is that the same as off the record? – when I was talking to a reporter I KNEW already from the Wall Street Journal regarding the Enron debacle. He promised not to use my name, and I thought I could trust him since we had worked together before (I placed ads in his paper for Enron). Not only did he use my entire name, but he misquoted me BIG TIME, which caused me to get a phone call from the Senate Special Committee as well as someone from a Congressional Committee. Needless to say, I have not trusted journalists who “will keep things anonymous”
    since then.

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