On the Record, Off the Record, On Background: What Does It All Mean?

December 11, 2014

On the Record, Off the Record, On Background: What Does It All Mean?

December 11, 2014

Group Gordon’s Stephanie Ramirez blogs about how and when to go “on the record,” “off the record,” and “on background.” 12.11.2014

The Newsroom fans constantly hear characters use “on the record”, “off the record”, and “on background”, but how many actually know what each phrase means or how to use them?

When used correctly, these phrases can help navigate sensitive topics, lend credibility to your statements, and strengthen your relationship with reporters. But use them incorrectly or fail to clearly define the terms in an interaction with a reporter and you risk inappropriate sharing, backlash, and damaged relationships.

“On the record”

The most straightforward of the three, “on the record” means everything you say can be reported on and attributed to you. Unless otherwise stated, assume you are “on the record” whenever you communicate with a reporter. Whether you speak on the phone, in person, via email, or through a tweet, anything you say is fair game for attribution. If a reporter follows up with you after an interview with additional questions or to clarify some of your answers, you are “on the record” once again.

“Off the record”

Though “on the record” is clear and direct, “off the record” is more ambiguous. While it means what you say cannot be published or attributed to you, don’t throw caution to the wind just because you’ve used it. To establish that something is “off the record”, you and a reporter must both agree to the terms before you share any sensitive information that you don’t want quoted. Otherwise, if he or she doesn’t acknowledge the assumed terms, what you say is fair game for publication. And reporters are not obligated to grant retrospective off-the-record requests—they have every right to quote something you said even if you later ask that your statement be off the record (he or she can’t un-hear it!).

Go “off the record” anytime you want to tip off a reporter about an issue, but don’t want the public to know you were the source because of some sensitivity. It’s also commonly used when meeting with a reporter for an informational meeting (instead of an interview) to provide details about you, your work, and issues that are important to you, and to suggest potential story ideas.

But be cautious—some say “off the record” doesn’t exist anymore. Even if you both agree to speak “off the record”, a reporter may still report on your comments if he or she can verify your statement through a third party or if you say something too juicy to keep quiet, as Uber’s Senior Vice President Emil Michael recently learned the hard way when talking to Buzzfeed’s Editor-in-Chief at a dinner party. To be safe, don’t say anything to a reporter that you’d never want to see in print.

“On background”

Of the three, “on background” is like Baby Bear’s bed—not too hard and not too soft. It means what you say can be quoted or paraphrased in a story, but it can’t be attributed to you by name. That can materialize in a vague attribution to your quote (“a source familiar with the conversation” or “a lawyer at a leading real estate firm”), or your comments summarized as background context in an article. Definitions for “on background” sometimes vary so it’s best to clarify the terms, but it is often a good way to provide clarification or greater context for a statement you just made without having to worry about it appearing word for word.

Now that you know what “on the record”, “off the record”, and “on background” mean and how best to use them, you’ll be fully equipped for your next interview with a reporter… and for the rest of The Newsroom or Season Three of House of Cards for even higher-stakes reporter interactions.