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.


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