Is this off the record?

September 24, 2018

While none of us are likely to meet with journalists in an underground parking garage under covert pseudonyms to leak secrets of the Nixon administration, we may encounter a reporter who would like to speak with a source “on background” or “off the record.” But what does that mean, exactly?

This summer, the New York Times launched a series, “Understanding the Times,” to shed light on how the Times goes about its work. One article provides a briefing on the types of sources that journalists use to cover a story: on the record, off the record, on background and on deep background. To paraphrase the Times:

On-the-record sources are the most typical. Interviewees can be cited speaking the words they spoke.

Note that if no terms are set in advance, any conversation with a journalist is considered on the record.

For the Times, words spoken in an off-the-record conversation cannot be used for publication. Off-the-record conversations can be useful to a reporter, but the source must establish the grounds for this type of interview in advance. If not otherwise stated, the conversation will be considered on the record.

In contrast, the New York Times generally considers the content of interviews given on background to be fair game for publication, but only under the conditions agreed upon with the source. Again, those conditions are best established in advance. The identification of the source can be negotiated, to give a reader proper context while protecting the privacy of the source.

For the Times, deep-background interviews will have no “fingerprints”—no attribution of any kind. Journalists work to independently verify information from deep-background interviews in order to gain the confidence to use it in a story.

Read more in this New York Times article about off the record.

If you’d like to learn more about journalist sources, please contact University Public Relations at unews@umn.edu.