Learn What "Off the Record" and "On Background" Means

Get insight into those reporting terms and more

Media Interview On the Record
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Always assume that whatever you tell a reporter might wind up on the front page of a newspaper or as the lead story on the 5 o'clock news. You can't think that saying, "This is off the record" magically protects you from being quoted.

Going off the record -- or on background -- represents an agreement entered into between the source and the reporter. If the reporter doesn't agree, you're still on the record.

Complicating the matter is the fact that many journalists don't understand the difference between the various terms. When Slate Magazine repeated a test that William Safire performed years ago by asking Washington Post reporters what the various types of attribution meant, even they didn't entirely agree on how to define the terms. To protect yourself, ensure that you and the reporter understand what restrictions are in place. Here are your options:

On the Record

This is simple: whatever you say can be used. You don't really say these words unless you had been speaking off the record, but now wish to go on the record. 

Off the Record

This is anything but simple, and it generates the most confusion among reporters.

Many journalists will treat this information as quotable but they won't attribute it to you. If you say it, they're probably going to use it. You can't unring this bell, particularly when you are telling a reporter something juicy and secret. The journalist is going to dig around and find somebody else to confirm what you said, and to get that confirmation may reveal you as the source. 

Some reporters and their subjects think "off the record" means they can't use it at all -- although they may gossip about it with friends, family or coworkers. Other reporters, including Bob Woodward, treat "off the record" as "try getting this from another source."

I'd advise never using this. It's smarter to either keep your mouth shut or set the ground rules by saying your words are "on background" or "not for attribution" and making sure the reporter agrees on the ground rules before you spill.

On Background

If you say it, the reporter can use it, 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 might share information "on background." Reporters often will seek out other sources to verify the information. 

Not for Attribution

It's like speaking on background; you can't be quoted by name. The reporter may, however, identify you by other means, such as identifying your job or your relationship to the story. 

You see this all the time when "Hollywood sources" say an actor is hard to live with on set, or when "a Pentagon official" comments on a story about the defense budget, or when "a member of a team's front office" is quoted on contract talks with a star player. Before saying anything, the source and the reporter must agree on how the story will identify the source.