What Does “Off the Record” Really Mean?

From “Scandal” to “The Newsroom,” there are numerous depictions of the media industry in pop culture that, while entertaining, are not always accurate. One misconception caused by these fictionalized accounts of journalists and publicists is confusion over what the term “off the record” means.

Even huge, powerful companies can get this wrong -- and suffer the consequences. In 2014, a BuzzFeed editor was invited to a private dinner hosted by Uber and later reported on controversial comments that a senior executive made, erroneously believing the conversation was off the record.

This oft-misunderstood term made headlines again recently, when President-Elect Trump convened with media elites “off the record” and someone -- perhaps from the Trump camp itself -- leaked the details to the New York Post.

Needless to say, “off the record” can trip up even the most seasoned executives and media professionals.

Understanding “Off the Record”

Broadly speaking, talking to a reporter “off the record” means that the information you provide can only enhance the reporter’s understanding of the story and cannot be used in any direct form in the story.

“Off the record” differs from “on background,” which means that information -- or even quotes -- from your interview can be used by the reporter but not attributed to you by name or by company. When a story mentions an “industry executive” or a “knowledgeable source,” it’s the result of someone speaking with the reporter on background.

Then there’s “on the record,” where all comments you make to the reporter are fair game to be attributed to you by name. Any interview -- any time you speak with a reporter -- is on the record by default unless you and the reporter agree otherwise in advance.

Best Practices

Here are a few things to keep in mind when interacting with journalists:

  • Again, unless you and the journalist make special arrangements, everything you say is on the record. This includes not only things you say during an interview, but also things you say in a less formal setting like a dinner or event.
  • You cannot switch between being on and off the record during an interview. The interview is either entirely off the record (negotiated by a PR rep beforehand), or it’s entirely on the record.
  • When in doubt, never assume that anything is truly “off the record.” Unless you’re speaking to a reporter you have a very well-established relationship with, who you trust, or a reporter who’s signed a non-disclosure agreement, you should never say something to a reporter during an interview that you wouldn’t want published.

As the examples above show, confusion over the term “off the record” is widespread and can have dire consequences. That’s why it’s essential to work with a PR team who understands and has experience navigating this challenging area.