What It Means To Speak To A Reporter Off The Record?

What It Means To Speak To A Reporter Off The Record?

Speaking to a reporter “off the record” can be a useful tool for providing important background information or sharing sensitive details without attribution. However, it requires careful negotiation between reporter and source to ensure both parties understand the terms of the conversation.

Mistakes can undermine trust, damage reputations or even end careers. As such, anyone speaking to the media needs to understand the meaning of “off the record” and how to establish ground rules before divulging information they don’t want made public.

This guide will provide easy-to-understand tips and best practices around off the record conversations with reporters. Mastering these will help ensure your interactions with the media align with your intentions and interests.

What Does “Off the Record” Mean?

At its most basic level, information given “off the record” means the reporter agrees not to identify the source or publish the content shared in any way. This allows for more open and honest dialogue without fear it will end up in print or on air with a name attached.

However, the specifics can vary:

  • Some consider off the record to mean information can’t be published at all.
  • Others see it as reportable as long as the source remains anonymous.
  • There may be exceptions allowing indirect attribution like “a source close to the matter.”

As such, it’s critical to get confirmation from the reporter on their precise definition of off the record before sharing any information you want kept private. Don’t assume your interpretation matches theirs.

Why Sources Request Off the Record

There are a variety of reasons sources may request to go off the record:

  • Protecting identity: Sources may fear losing jobs, relationships, access or facing other consequences if their name gets connected to sensitive disclosures.
  • Providing context: Background details given off record can help reporters understand nuances and complexities, even if specifics can’t be published.
  • Building trust: Over time, off the record dialogues can strengthen source-reporter relationships and expand access to on the record information.
  • Influencing coverage: Sources can subtly steer reporting directions without fingerprints by pointing to discoveries made independently by reporters.

The Ground Rules

Before going off the record, both parties must establish ground rules and agree to them explicitly:

Get confirmation the conversation is off the record

Don’t assume. Ask directly: “Can we speak off the record?” Wait for clear confirmation from the reporter before proceeding.

Define what off record means

As explained above, definitions vary. Make sure you and the reporter align on specifics of what can and can’t be published.

Set expectations on indirect attribution

If any form of anonymous attribution like “unnamed sources” is allowed, determine what vague identifiers can be used and discuss any limitations.

Agree on pre-approval before use

Some sources request to review quotes or passages prior to publication to ensure terms haven’t been violated, even without attribution.

Limit distribution of notes

Some sources want assurances that notes, recordings and other artefacts won’t be shared, distributed or archived without permission.

By taking the time to be explicit about ground rules up front, you reduce the chances of misunderstandings down the line. Reporters worth speaking to will understand and accept the need for clarity.

Initiating the Conversation

Once ground rules are set, initiating off the record conversations takes finesse and care:

Signal it verbally

Don’t rely on gestures or assume past precedent carries forward. Each conversation requires stating intent: “Let’s go off the record.”

Watch for agreement

Allow the reporter to consent and acknowledge before proceeding rather than plowing ahead with assumptions.

Transition smoothly

Segue conversationally into more private topics so it’s clear when you’ve gone off record but avoid jarring tonal shifts.

Limit scope

Be disciplined about what you share off record so conversations don’t spiral out of control. Stick to intended topics.

Bringing conversations back on the record takes equal care:

Note transition

Signal clearly when you want to go back on record so reporter knows rules have shifted: “Now, back on the record…”

Change topics

Jumping from sensitive off record topics immediately into quotable on record comments can be ethically questionable. Better to reset context.

Confirm use guidelines

Reconfirm ground rules around use of background details learned off record so there’s no ambiguity moving forward.

Exiting Gracefully

To close out off the record conversations gracefully:

Clarify next steps

Discuss if another off the record meeting is needed or determine appropriate channels for any further interactions.

Express gratitude

Thank the reporter for respecting ground rules as a way to reinforce trust and preserve access for the future.

Disengage politely

If you choose not to continue dialogues, communicate that decision clearly and definitively while remaining cordial.

Ending well sets the stage for positive ongoing relationships between sources and reporters even when interests may not fully align in the moment.

Common Issues

Despite best intentions, off the record conversations can go awry:

Comments shared publicly

Trump has demonstrated this risk. Comments meant to be private get tweeted, printed or aired despite agreements.

Legal exceptions

Reporters may claim public interest outweighs off record promises in extreme cases of illegality, ethics breaches or abuse.


Other parties privy to private meetings, recordings or notes may leak details publicly without consent.

Broken confidentiality

Reporters legally compelled to testify may disclose confidential source identities or private comments.

Misaligned interests

Sources perceiving conversations as friendly chats and reporters seeing them as fact-finding missions for stories can create disconnects.

Evolving stories

Off record comments may become impossible to fully disconnect from coverage of unfolding events, even without direct quotes.

Reputable reporters working in good faith try hard to honor agreements and avoid putting sources in awkward spots. But complications can occur.

Having contingency plans for addressing leaks and being prepared to claim misquotes as needed gives useful cover to save face publicly if needed.

Best Practices

Mastering the art of going off the record while avoiding pitfalls requires diligence around best practices:

Set expectations clearly

Ensure all participants understand ground rules and align on definitions before starting conversations.

Formalize terms when possible

For high-stakes interactions, having legal agreements with confidentiality clauses can add protections.

Limit distribution

The more people with access to off record comments, the higher likelihood of leaks, legally compelled disclosures or unintended breaches.

Speak precisely

Choose words carefully rather than speculating loosely or blurting things you might regret if made public later without context.

Record meetings

Capturing your own verbatim transcripts lets you challenge inaccuracies if comments get misquoted or taken out of context.

Designate media liaisons

Rather than whole teams interacting with press, appoint designated spokespeople to handle media interactions and train them extensively.

Discuss dilemmas transparently

If reporters get information they think should be published from other sources, prompt notification and discussion of response options is better than accusations of agreement violations after the fact.

Helpful Alternatives

If going fully off record seems too risky, some alternatives give useful middle ground:

On background

Comments given can be published without naming the source directly. General descriptors like “industry sources” or “officials familiar with the matter” are used.

On deep background

This means published information won’t be connected to a source in any way. No descriptors or anonymous attribution, but facts stand independently.

Not for attribution

Similar to on background. Comments may be published and attributed anonymously to a “spokesperson,” “executive” or “expert” depending on context.

On the record

Everything is publishable and attributable by name. This requires extreme discipline to avoid slip-ups that get misinterpreted or taken out of intended context.

Over time, cultivating a few trusted journalists and outlets you can speak with candidly as needed without elaborate rules or on record posturing has great strategic value.


What if the reporter breaks the agreement?

Violations of off record agreements undermine vital trust between sources and journalists. However, legal options are limited since conversations are not legally binding and bringing lawsuits draws more unwanted attention. Public criticism of the reporters and outlets involved can inflict damage to their reputations and credibility. In extreme cases, banning reporters from access and events for breaking agreements sends a strong message to the broader community.

What if I say something I regret off the record?

Reporters have ethical responsibilities not to violate ground rules even if sources let slip something they wish they hadn’t. However, extreme cases where off record comments point to criminality, serious ethics breaches or abuse may lead reporters to reconsider agreements. Record your meetings whenever possible so you have verbatim transcripts if disputes arise later over what exactly was said. And have a plan ready to plausibly deny, distort or distance yourself from regrettable comments that might go public anyway.

Can I go off record retroactively?

No. Trying to retract comments after the fact undermines transparency and trust. Reporters are under no obligations to strike publishable on record comments shared freely, even if sources develop buyer’s remorse. Negotiate terms clearly at the start of conversations instead. And avoid sharing anything you might conceivably want off record later without explicit agreements first.

Can I be quoted anonymously without permission?

This falls into a gray area that requires ethical judgement calls by reporters. If you go into discussions openly with a reporter without any agreement about attribution, what you say is generally all on the record. However, some may still allow anonymous quotes after the fact if there is compelling public interest in the information balanced against potential harm to the source from attribution. Don’t rely on reporter discretion though. Have the conversation about ground rules up front.

The tips and best practices provided above should help ensure your off the record media interactions protect your interests, build useful reporter relationships and avoid unintended consequences. Just be sure to do your diligence before speaking freely!

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