Glossary: Off the Record

This journalistic phrase is so common pretty much everyone uses it now.

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Ask any journalist what the phrase “off the record” (or “on background”) means, and you’ll probably get slightly different definitions. That may in part be because more and more journalists  — including citizen journalists — didn’t study journalism in high school or college but rather other subjects (film, political science, philosophy, history, data science, etc.).

So when a story source tells a journalist certain information is “off the record,” the journalist should start by clarifying what that means to both parties. And for professional journalists, that may depend on how their news organization defines it. At Snopes (and now the OTI newsletter), we follow some basic guidelines about identifying sources, or the information they tell us, in stories:

  • We avoid anonymous sources like the plague, using them only when the information is critical to a story; not obtainable any other way (or by any other expert); and we believe the source likely would face physical, personal, or financial harm (like job loss) if identified by name. 
  • We don’t allow sources to dictate to us that something is off the record until the journalist has agreed and negotiated that. In other words, sources speaking to our writers should assume their information is on the record. 
  • The phrase “off the record” can mean different things. Is the source asking that his/her name not be used whatsoever but that the information can be used in a story and attributed generically to a “spokesperson”? Or is the source asking that neither a name NOR the information itself be published whatsoever? Clarity is key. 

Snopes generally follows Associated Press style guidelines, including around sourcing. For a detailed run-down of these types of thorny issues, check out this post.