Journalists don't really understand the phrase "off the record"-- or, more precisely, they can't agree on what it means. If you speak to 10 different journalists, you'll probably hear 10 different definitions.
In fact, one survey of five reporters from separate sections of The Washington Post found that each of the journalists defined "off the record" differently. Some thought it meant they couldn't ever use information they learned; others thought the information was fair game as long as they didn't identify their source. One of the reporters even admitted, "I have no idea what 'off the record' means."
If journalists themselves can't agree on the definition of "off the record," you shouldn't rely on the term to forge agreements with reporters. It's a meaningless expression. Banish it from your lexicon.
For that reason and others, many media trainers teach spokespersons that
they should never go off the record or "on background." But as most
political and public affairs professionals know, that's unrealistic
advice--and, at times, counterproductive. There are times when sharing
information you don't want printed (or, that you wanted printed but
without your fingerprints on it) can be useful.
If you decide to speak off the record or on background (generally
defined as meaning the information you provide can be used, but you
can't be named or quoted in the story), you should:
1. Consult with a communications professional before the interview,
either from an outside firm or within your own campaign, agency, or
2. Consider your relationship with the reporter. Journalists who have
treated you fairly for years are generally safer bets than reporters
you've never worked with before.
3. Ask reporters to tell you what "off the record" or "on background"
means to them prior to the interview.
4. Make any agreements with reporters before you say something you want
kept off the record. You can't deliver an interesting tidbit and declare
it off-limits afterward.
Those precautions will help minimize your risk, but it's important to
remember there are never guarantees when going off the record or on
background. Some reporters mistakenly use information they thought they
were allowed to use; others get overruled by their editors; and others
still name their sources when threatened with prison time by a judge.
Therefore, always remember the most important rule of going off the
record: if you can't afford the risk of being named in the story, remain
on the record and say only what you'd be comfortable seeing in print
the next morning.
Taegan D. Goddard is the founder of Political Wire, one of the earliest and most influential political web sites.
Goddard spent more than a decade as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he was a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You
Won - Now What? (Scribner, 1998), a political
management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from
both parties. In addition, Goddard's essays on politics and public
policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers across the country,
including the Washington Post, USA Today, Boston Globe, San Francisco
Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and Christian Science
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University. He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.
PRAISE FOR POLITICAL WIRE
"There are a lot of blogs and news sites claiming to understand
politics, but only a few actually do. Political Wire is one of them."
-- Chuck Todd, NBC News political director
"Concise. Relevant. To the point. Political Wire is the first site I check when I’m looking for the latest political nugget. That pretty much says it all."
-- Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report
"Political Wire is one of only four or five sites that I check every
day and sometimes several times a day, for the latest political news
-- Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report
"The big news, delicious tidbits, pearls of wisdom -- nicely packaged, constantly updated... What political junkie could ask for more?"
-- Larry Sabato, Center for Politics, University of Virginia
"Political Wire is a great, great site."
-- Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's Morning Joe
"If I were on the proverbial
desert island and had only one web site to access, Political Wire would
-- Dotty Lynch, CBS News political consultant
"Taegan Goddard has a knack for digging out political gems that too
often get passed over by the mainstream press, and for delivering the
latest electoral developments in a sharp, no frills style that makes
his Political Wire an addictive blog habit you don't want to kick."
-- Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post
"Political Wire is one of the absolute must-read sites in the blogosphere."
-- Glenn Reynolds, founder of Instapundit
"I rely on Taegan Goddard's Political Wire for straight, fair political news, he gets right to the point. It's an eagerly anticipated part of my news reading."
-- Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.
Send your tips, memos, comments and suggestions to