What to do when a Source says “Off the Record”
Real reporting isn’t like the movies. You don’t often meet with sources in seedy bars at midnight for an interview. You don’t usually deal with anonymous sources who will only talk by telephone and insist on using a clever moniker like “Deep Throat.”
But you may occasionally encounter a source who won’t answer a question without first saying, “Off the record.” What does this mean, and what should you do if someone says this to you?
For novice health journalists: understanding on and off the record
When you are working as a reporter—even as a freelance reporter—everything someone says to you in an interview is assumed to be “on the record.” That is, the interviewee assumes you are going to use his remarks with attribution. Here’s an example of an on-the-record quote:
“We expect the FDA to approve our drug application,” said Henry L. Wiseacre, CEO of Fauxceuticals Corporation.
This on-the-record assumption is a cornerstone of journalism. You must remember anything a source says to you may be used in a story, even if they try to recant later. It’s not uncommon for a person to say something in an interview and later think, “Gosh, I shouldn’t have said that.” Just because a source expresses regret later doesn’t necessarily mean you need to axe that juicy quote from your story. You and your editor will use your discretion about that.
You may be asking: if on-the-record is the ‘default mode’ of journalism, then what is the purpose of ‘off the record’? Good question.
Sometimes a source may want or need to provide information (such as a trade secret) to help you understand the background or context of their story, but they don’t want this information revealed to the public. In this instance, they may request to go “off-the-record,” which means not only must you not attribute the information to the source, but you cannot use the information in your story at all.
To understand this better, read The News Manual explanation, which provides an excellent example.
What to do if a source says “off the record”
Keep in mind you do not have to grant “off the record” requests. You can choose to say, “If you can’t speak on the record, then don’t tell me because I don’t want to know.” However, most journalists would not do that because off-the-record information can lead to some of the best stories.
Many sources don’t know the correct way to use “off-the-record,” though, and this can be problematic. Here are some ways to handle these situations.
- Source goes off-the-record frequently
Gently remind the source they agreed to an on-the-record interview. Tell them if they insist on speaking off-the-record, you may need to find a more forthcoming source.
- Source goes off-the-record due to an overabundance of caution
If a source keeps going off-the-record for no valid reason, ask them why they don’t want the information used in the story. Make your case for how their information is not sensitive or controversial and that its inclusion would create a much more well-rounded story. This might encourage them to stay on the record for the rest of the interview.
- Source tries to go off-the-record after the fact
Tell the source you cannot guarantee you will not use what they just told you. Remind them they agreed to an on-the-record interview. Some sources will withdraw from an interview if you refuse to honor off-the-record comments after the fact. Before every interview you should decide if the source is irreplaceable or not. If he is, you can afford for him to withdraw over an off-the-record issue. If the source is irreplaceable, you will have to find a way to work around the problem.
- Source uses “off the record” to mean “without attribution”
Any time a source says “off the record,” ask if they really mean they don’t want you to use the information they’re sharing or if they mean they don’t want the info attributed to them. If they say you can use the information without attribution, be sure to clearly note this or get it on tape.
In my 30-year reporting career, I’ve only had sources invoke “off-the-record” a handful of times. Each time I was able to get the comments into the record. If a source tries to go off the record, don’t become adversarial. Use your communication skills to try to persuade the source to let you use their quotes and information. And always, always let your editor know about potential on-the-record issues as soon as you can.
Tell me: Have you ever had a source try to go off the record during an interview? How did you handle it?
Wishing you well,