We attribute quotations to the speaker so readers can judge the validity of the information. But sometimes sources want to tell us things without their names on it. They might fear being fired, for instance, for revealing secrets. The off-the-record process allows us to grant them that privilege, but it harms the readers’ understanding and reduces our credibility. So we use the technique sparingly, only to protect the source and because the information has compelling public importance.
Everybody knows the phrase “Off the record,” but few agree on what it means. Professional journalists would agree that everything a source says is available for public quoting and attribution, unless the writer and the source agree ahead of time that it is not.
Several technical terms govern sourcing agreements: “Off the record,” “not for attribution,” and “on background.”
Casually used, “Off the record” usually means that the writer may quote statements but not attribute them to the source, in other words, not for attribution. Others think that it means the writer may not quote or attribute the statement, but can use it to obtain the same information elsewhere. A strict definition would say that the writer cannot use the information at all, even to follow it up; this version is often called “On background.”
Unless the publication you write for has specific policies on these terms, I recommend the following procedures. When a source wants to “go off the record,” i.e., say something without attribution, you reply something like this: “By ‘off the record,’ you mean I can use this information, even quote it, as long as I don’t put your name on it? We call that ‘not for attribution?’ Okay?” If the source agrees, you write, “Not for attribution” in your notes, and record the time. As soon as possible, get the source to agree that you’re back on the record and write, “On the record” and the time. Years later, perhaps in court, you can document exactly what was and was not on the record.
Here’s a magic technique to get off-the-record stuff back onto the record. Near the end of an interview, try something like this, coming on slow and easy. “I’d like to use some of the things you said off the record. Could we review them and make sure we agree?” The source agrees. Then read some fairly innocent thing said in confidence, and ask if you can use it. The source agrees. Then read some less innocent thing said in confidence, and ask if you can use it. The source agrees. Then ask if you can use the part about the axe murder. Be ready for follow-up questions.
This trick succeeds about half the time. Why does it work? Sources tell you something in confidence because they’re afraid or not sure what you’ll do with it. Later in the interview, particularly after hard questions, if you’ve created an atmosphere of trust, they worry less, and will reconsider passages.
What if the source tells you something terrific, and then announces it’s off the record? You don’t accept that condition; you negotiate. You might also ask why the source wants the information off the record. If you play hard-ass (“You said it, bud, and it’s goin’ in my piece.”), the interview is over, and you can’t ask follow-up questions.
REMEMBER: EVERYTHING SAID IS ON THE RECORD UNLESS YOU BOTH AGREE THAT IT’S NOT.
There are also legal and ethical aspects of this process. Going off the record is a retroactive corporate decision. Such agreements, even oral ones, are legal contracts between the source and the publishing organization, which may or may not be the writer. Be prepared to identify your sources to your editors.
I believe we have an ethical obligation to protect unsophisticated sources with a warning. A shrewd interviewer can get an innocent to say almost anything, but that doesn’t mean you should publish it. The warning might go like this: “Your mother is going to read this. Are you sure you want to say that in public?” Sometimes being ethical can lose good quotes, but you can live with yourself later.
Finally, never violate off-the-record agreements, which are promises based on trust. You won’t get to talk to that source again, and that source will no longer talk to me. Once bitten, always bitter.
[Want to disagree with this skeletal view of off the record? Let’s hear what you think.]