Going off the record — or on background — represents an agreement between you as a source and a reporter that what you say will not be quoted in a news story. If the reporter doesn't agree, you're still on the record.
Unless you enter into an agreement ahead of time, you should always expect that anything you tell a reporter could end up in a news story, whether it's in print, online, or on television.
To protect yourself before speaking to the media, be sure that both you and the reporter are clear on expectations and whether they'll protect your anonymity if you request they do so. There are multiple terms that can be used during a discussion with a reporter. Before you talk to a member of the press, be clear on what each term means and when to use it.
What Does On the Record Mean?
If you are speaking on the record, then whatever you say can be used by the journalist. Your words may be quoted directly or paraphrased, but either way, they are attributed to you.
When talking to a reporter, you generally won't say that something is on the record unless you have previously been speaking off the record. Avoid going on and off the record multiple times during a conversation or both you and the reporter may become confused about what was said under what conditions.
What Does Off the Record Mean?
Off the record can mean different things to different journalists.
Some reporters and their subjects think off the record means they can't use the information in a news story at all. Other journalists will treat information shared off the record as viable, but they won't attribute it to you. Most reporters will use the information but look for other ways to corroborate it or another source who will confirm it on the record.
If you are tempted to share information off the record, set ground rules before you begin by saying your words are on background or not for attribution. Be sure the reporter agrees before you speak.
If you're speaking mostly on the record but want a certain part of your conversation to be off the record, confirm whether you are on or off the record before and after you begin speaking. Be very clear about which portion the reporter can and cannot attribute to you in the final reported story.
On Background vs. Off the Record
Information that you share on background can be used by a reporter, but the journalist cannot in any way identify you as the source. The story cannot even provide hints, such as the position you hold, about your identity.
Whistleblowers who want to reveal wrongdoing without exposing their names or position might share information on background. Reporters often will seek out other sources to verify information that is shared on background.
What Does Not for Attribution Mean When Talking to the Media?
Like speaking on background, if you say information is not for attribution you cannot be quoted by name. The reporter may, however, identify you by other means, such as identifying the type of job you hold or your relationship to the subject of the story.
Before you share any information that is not for attribution, you and the reporter you are speaking with must agree on how you will be identified in the final story. If you are not comfortable with how the reporter wants to identify you, do not share any further information, or switch to speaking on background.
Clarify Terms Before Speaking to a Reporter
Most reporters prefer to identify and quote sources, which keeps their reporting as accurate and trustworthy as possible. They will, however, work with sources who do not want to be identified in order to create as complete a story as possible. Before you speak on background, off the record, or not for attribution, spell out your expectations clearly and completely to avoid any confusion or surprises when the final story is published.
Preface the information with a statement such as, "I'm going to tell you something, but I don't want this attributed to me in any way. You'll have to corroborate it with another source. Do you agree to these terms?" Wait for verbal confirmation from the reporter before you continue.
If you're uncertain about whether you want a member of the press to have a given piece of information, it's better to say nothing.