Background Dotted Pattern

“Off the Record!” Doesn’t Really Work That Way

April 8, 2024

You’ve seen it in the movies or a tense TV political drama. Some bigwig with a plot-turning secret proclaims to a reporter, “That was off the record!” – thereby ensuring the news will never see the light of day, or that they’ll never face accountability for the comment.

Except that’s not the way it works in reality. Even if it did, people rarely benefit from talking to the media off the record. Think about it, why would a reporter take the time to speak with you if you’re explicitly telling them they shouldn’t use your insights?

To be a leading executive voice for your company, especially during times of uncertainty, it’s important to understand how reporters communicate, and the journalistic “ground rules” that establish how you can be quoted and included in a situationally appropriate context. 

Since there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the terms “on the record,” “off the record” and “on background,” we thought it would be helpful to clear up some misconceptions and explain why they’re important for conveying your message to your intended audience. [Note that the guidance below is based on the U.S. media landscape. Some countries may have different terminology or guidelines.] 

  • On the Record: When a conversation is on the record, a reporter can use what you’ve said in their story and can quote you directly by name as having said it.

    This is the default setting during an interview. Assume that you’re on the record unless it’s been mutually established otherwise by both you and the reporter.

    Don’t let that frighten you, though! Ninety-five percent of the time, you’re speaking with a reporter with the express intention of being included in a news article, thereby demonstrating your expertise or unique perspective on a topic. While never guaranteed, speaking on the record makes it more likely that a reporter will quote you in their piece, particularly if they’re writing on a deadline.

    Just know that your words can be used verbatim, and don’t say anything you (or the regulators) wouldn’t want to see in print. Remember, once you say anything, the reporter has the right to include it.

  • On Background: The goal of conducting an interview on background is to be able to share a perspective or information without it being directly attributable to you or your firm as the source.

    If you’ve ever read a variation of the phrase “according to a source familiar with the matter,” you’ve encountered an example of somebody speaking on background.

    Most often, speaking on an on-background basis first occurs during an introductory interview, when you’re meeting with a reporter for coffee perhaps, establishing a connection, and relaying generalities about the sectors for which you can be a reliable source. You’re not necessarily opining for a specific article, but occasionally something you say fits into a piece the reporter is working on, or triggers an idea for a new story.

    In addition to introductions, we use this method in specific circumstances to answer questions or correct inaccuracies about sensitive topics in the market with relative anonymity. Some examples might include addressing questions about private fundraising progress or the valuation of a given deal. Note that even if your name is not directly attached to a given piece of information because you were speaking on background, you’re still likely traceable as the source if you’re the only one who could have possibly known that detail, or if it’s overwhelmingly and obviously favorable to you.

    Another instance in which you might encounter being on background is if the reporter has agreed to a quote check before publishing a piece. This approach can be valuable if you are speaking about something highly technical, where the complexity of your words could easily be mistranscribed. However, quote checks are intended only for the purposes of checking the accuracy of what you said, and providing a minimal amount of clarification if needed. It isn’t an invitation to wordsmith or rewrite a passage for style.  Moreover, the reporter is not obligated to agree to that condition, and the more “top-tier” the publication, the less open they are likely to be to it. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times’ editorial guidelines, for example, forbid reporters from offering quote checks.

  • Off the Record: Speaking under the agreement that your conversation is confidential, unofficial, and not for direct publication.

    When acting as a company spokesperson, there’s almost never a reason to go off the record when speaking one-on-one with a reporter. What clients almost always mean is “on background.” Contrary to the misgiven but widely held understanding, a journalist can still write about a topic you’ve offered as an off-the-record opinion, so long as they can source somebody else who can corroborate the insights you provided on that topic. Furthermore, being off the record needs to be agreed to by both you and the reporter before sharing those details. Unlike in the movies, sharing something sensitive followed by saying it’s “off the record” doesn’t work!

    One exception – in certain event settings, such as a conference cocktail reception or industry party, where both reporters and company executives are in attendance – it’s completely understandable to request that a conversation remain off the record if you’re not offering prepared remarks or speaking as a representative of your firm. Just make sure you’ve confirmed  that with a reporter before getting into the conversation.

Understanding how to speak and interact with reporters is ultimately key to effectively conveying your and your company’s strategic messaging. Your PR team can coordinate appropriate ground rules for you in advance of an interview or conversation with a reporter – but if in doubt, remember that it’s safest to assume you’re on the record.

By Doug Allen, Vice President