Beware of “Off the Record”
May 25, 2015
Deep Throat gave us the ultimate example of information being given “Off the Record”.
This was the pseudonym for the secret informant who provided reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstei of the Washington Post with information about the involvement of U.S. President Richard Nixon in what became known as the Watergate scandal. Years later, it was confirmed that Deep Throat was W. Mark Felt, the Deputy Director of the FBI. But, it’s no longer the 1970s and not all reporters are Woodward and Bernstein.
Is there such a thing as “Off the Record”?
Don’t get me wrong. Information that’s given “off the record” does have its place. In my days as a journalist, I received quite a bit of information this way. And, this can be very useful for reporters. It can give them direction or confirmation for an important story. However, not all reporters are created equal. So you can’t guarantee that what you say “off the record” will necessarily stay “off the record”. It often depends on the reporter and on the story.
When do people leak information?
Often, people leak information this way when they believe it’s in the public interest or that it serves the greater good. Sometimes, they feel compelled because they’ve discovered something…a fraud, a scandal a wrongdoing, an injustice…something criminal. But this approach shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Take “Off the Record” seriously.
As a journalist, I was always surprised at how often I’d be in an interview and I’d ask a question and the person would start off with ”Well, “off the record”…” and then they’d continue on without even pausing to see if I agreed. Then, there were the people who’d have an entire conversation and then say…”And, oh, you’ll keep all that off the record…right?” Guess what? That’s not how it works. Nothing has been negotiated. There is no deal. A reporter if fully within their rights to use anything that’s been said in that type of situation.
There are many misconceptions about “Off the Record”.
Many people seem to see it as a normal way to deal with reporters. And, they also see it as some kind of sacred trust. That’s probably why it’s often used in a cavalier fashion.
Use “Off the Record” strategically.
Unless you find yourself in an unusual situation that you believe warrants extreme measures, I’d advise that you never say anything “off the record”. Don’t even joke about it because even that can get you into trouble. The safest policy is always to assume that absolutely everything you say is “on the record”. That way you’ll never find yourself in an embarrassing or compromising situation.