Learn What "off the Record" and 'on Background" Mean

Understand the Terms of Your Conversation with a Reporter

Media Interview On the Record
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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.

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.

To protect yourself before speaking to a member of the press, 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. Here are the different terms and what they mean.

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. Be careful to avoid going on and off the record multiple times during a conversation, because you and the reporter both may get confused about what was said under what conditions. If you're speaking mostly on the record but want a certain part to be off the record, tell the reporter the off-the-record portion at the end of the conversation and be very clear that they can't use whatever it is you tell them in their story.

Off the Record

Many journalists will treat this information as viable but they won't attribute it to you. If you say it, they're probably going to use it at some point, by digging and finding other ways to corroborate the information, which is only fair; why are you telling the reporter something you don't want them to know?

Most reporters are savvy enough to figure out why someone is telling them something off the record. Sometimes it's a way to dish dirt on someone without getting your name attached. But be advised that you can't unring this bell. A good journalist is going to dig around and find somebody else to confirm what you said.

Some reporters and their subjects think "off the record" means they can't use the information in a news story at all, although they may talk about it with friends, family or coworkers. Other reporters may treat "off the record" as "try getting this from another source."

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 speak.

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

This is 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. 

Make Sure Terms are Clear

As noted above, it's important that both sides agree to the terms, so before you speak on background, off the record or not for attribution, spell out your expectations clearly and completely to the reporter.

For instance, preface the information with a statement like "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?" and make sure you have verbal confirmation from the reporter.

If you're uncertain about whether you want a reporter to have a given piece of information, it's better to say nothing.