Putting off the record back on the record

For journalists and the public alike, there has never been a term more misunderstood than ‘off the record’ says Tim Burrowes.

Back when I worked on a local paper, I once had to ring the manager of a local swimming pool for a comment about a gripe one of the readers had.

I introduced myself, we chatted for a while, and I asked a couple of questions.

Suddenly, she interrupted me. “Are you interviewing me?” she asked – accusingly. I struggled to find a polite way of asking what she thought I’d called for – just checking the pool temperature because I fancied a swim perhaps?

In the years that followed, I’ve seen more misunderstandings about the nature of the conversation a journalist is having with a source than any other issue.

If a journalist told you they were chatting “off the record” what would you take that to mean?

Does it mean that whatever you tell them can’t be written about? Or does it mean that they’ll use the information but not attribute it to you? Or that they’ll quote you but as an anonymous source?

At various points I’ve dealt with sources who think it means all three things. And even more alarmingly, journalists who think the same.

For me, I take off the record to mean that I can use the info – for example that Fred’s been fired – but I can’t say where I got it.

I know journalists who take the view that if somebody doesn’t say a comment is off the record, then it’s on. That’s fair enough if you’re calling a spokesman or official.

And there’s nothing more annoying for a journalist than somebody trying retrospectively to take something off the record just because they regret saying something silly. My attitude then is to treat them as somebody who knows the rules of the game and to feel free to use the quote.

Where it gets murky is if it’s somebody you have built up a rapport with. Then I think the fairer question for the journalist is: what status does the source think the conversation is? And if the journalist isn’t sure, then double check. Occasionally, that approach means you lose a juicy quote. But you don’t lose contacts.

Tim Burrowes is the editor-in-chief of Encore and Mumbrella.


  1. Dan
    4 Sep 12
    11:22 am

  2. If you are having any kind of conversation with a journalist you should assume it’s on the record – every time. Even if they say it’s off the record, continue to be wary. This is not a dig at journalists (I used to be one) but a simple safety mechanism.

  3. I agree with you Dan
    4 Sep 12
    12:05 pm

  4. Wholeheartedly.

  5. Renai LeMay
    4 Sep 12
    12:35 pm

  6. As a junior journalist, I found it more useful to have almost all of my conversations on the record.

    As a senior journalist, I found it more useful to have almost all of my conversations off the record.

    As an editor, I have found it more useful to have almost all of my conversations on deep background at the pub 😉

  7. Canning
    4 Sep 12
    1:32 pm

  8. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.
    Rule 1. Always establish the ground rules.
    Rule 2. Stick to them.

  9. Steve
    4 Sep 12
    1:34 pm

  10. Yep, having conducted media training several times over the years the meaning of ‘off the record’ will vary from journo to journo. If you want to make an ‘off the record’ comment to a journo, agree on the ‘terms and conditions of use’ before commenting.

    That said, in my sector (government), ‘off the record’ is fact becoming a thing of the past. Officials like me would rather stick to a nice, concise, clinical comment, signed off by managers at every level, and sent by e-mail to prevent any possibility of being mis-quoted.

  11. Jason
    4 Sep 12
    1:53 pm

  12. The only time ‘off the record’ applies is when I go and visit my pyschiatrist

  13. Anon
    4 Sep 12
    2:04 pm

  14. I thought “off the record” meant off the record. not to be recorded. no mention.

    ie it should not go on any public record, article, blog, etc even if its not attributed. its not only the source but also the information that is off the record.

    putting aside official spokespeople and the like, if you’re seriously suggesting an ordinary person understands that “off the record” means it will be published, you’ve been in journalism far too long and have lost touch with what people think.

    the man on the street thinks off the record means not to be published or referenced in any way shape or form.

    the official spokesperson should and usually does assume anything off the record may be used.

  15. Bob
    4 Sep 12
    3:03 pm

  16. One of my bosses used to say, never say anything to a journo that you don’t want printed on the front page of the NYT!

  17. sam
    4 Sep 12
    3:07 pm

  18. Looking to the US for comment on such topics may seem incongruous, but this is a topic pragmatically covered in (Ep 7 ?) of Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant “The Newsroom”. I only wish some TV journos could be nailed down and made to watch…. of course, by some, I mean

  19. anon1
    4 Sep 12
    3:24 pm

  20. Off the record means at the very least you need to find a separate source to stand the story up.

    Beyond that, it depends on context and relationships. “Off the record, I think the prime minister is an incompetent idiot” vs “Off the record, a percentage of the department’s funds were spent on underage prostitutes.”

    It’s not rocket science.

  21. NJK
    4 Sep 12
    4:21 pm

  22. @ Steve – that’s the problem with Government departments…and many other organisations…nowadays. Nothing provided publicly is candid and off-the-cuff. It’s all, as you put it, “clinical”, or as I put it, sterile. It has to be ticked off by so many layers of bureaucracy that by the time it arrives in a journalist’s inbox (god forbid someone should actually talk to them for once rather than email) it’s almost always stale, boring and unquotable.

  23. jean cave
    4 Sep 12
    5:02 pm

  24. Even when I am talking to myself . . . for example in the bath . . I find myself tidying up the script.

  25. Bem
    4 Sep 12
    5:13 pm

  26. If someone says it’s off the record, to me, it means that you CAN’T use it as they don’t want it recorded. That doesn’t mean you can’t try and find another source who will say it on the record. I find if rather baffling that someone would print something that’s off the record. That’s a breach of trust. What’s more interesting is that different journalists clearly have different rules, which makes it far more difficult for a source to understand the meaning of the term….

  27. Adam
    4 Sep 12
    8:31 pm

  28. Tim u once told me ‘not for print’ is much more clear and more strongly adhered to. Is this still the case??

  29. mumbrella
    4 Sep 12
    9:53 pm

  30. I’d argue yes, Adam. But again – make sure that between you and the journo you both understand that to mean the same thing…


    Tim – Mumbrella

  31. Kylie's mum
    5 Sep 12
    12:28 pm

  32. Off the record is usually a good bit of info that you can run with and quote a ‘source’ without getting into too much trouble, or a heads up to investigate further. Either way when told something is off the record, as a journalist, you always check with your source what can and can’t be written/reported/blogged!

  33. Craig
    6 Sep 12
    2:28 am

  34. NJK, public servants do it because they have been so badly treated by journalists, happy to crucify the public service.

    It’s an interesting arms war between journalists, who want to report interesting, public interest stories and the individuals and organisations who feel used and abused by them.

    There’s right and wrong on both sides.

    Here’s a tip for journalists – if you want more people to talk to you, create an industry-wide and public definition of the term ‘off the record’.

    Because if every journalist treats the phrase in their own unique way, people will mistrust all of you.

    But please don’t quote me!

  35. Bob
    6 Sep 12
    10:18 am

  36. @NJK:

    “Nothing provided publicly is candid and off-the-cuff. It’s all, as you put it, “clinical”, or as I put it, sterile.”

    That’s because journos, motivated by personal career gain and readership/advertiser dollars, turn the slightest event into a massive, overblown crisis, thus ensuring that even a misplaced cough during an interview could be marketed as a national epidemic.

    The rise of the clinical, carefully-managed comment is merely a response to bad journalistic practices.