What does it mean to go off the record? Well, that depends on the source — and the journalist.

“You always have to clarify,” explained Ray Waddell with Billboard. “There’s ‘you didn’t hear this from me’ off the record and there’s ‘this cannot be known’ off the record. Then there’s the My Morning Jacket song ‘Off The Record.'”
In that famous song, MMJ frontman Jim James proclaims, “Well, I really don’t need the confusion/And you know, I just ain’t the type/To get all wrapped up in the illusion/Of doin’ something that I know ain’t right (right right).”
So how does one avoid the mess James is singing about? Is there a fine line between avoiding confusion and doing what’s right (right, right)?
“Lines can get blurry,” Waddell told me. “If in doubt, err on the side of caution and don’t use it, don’t sacrifice what could be a 20-year relationship with scores of great tips for one moment of glory.”
The moment of glory quandary is very real — all across the planet, there are thousands of journalists weighing whether or not they should screw over a source and publish a juicy tidbit that MIGHT set the world on fire. Pressure and deadlines can sometimes nudge a reporter into printing salacious details about a source — that’s why I try to implement a 48-hour waiting period on any stories that could burn a bridge. When you sit on something for a few days and ponder the consequences, cooler heads usually prevail.
“I usually start off asking if the subject minds if I record,” explained writer Danielle Bacher, whose stories have appeared in Men’s Journal, Esquire and Nylon. “It’s equally important for the journalist to maintain that what is off record, will always be off record. This means that what is off record will not included in the article.”

Oftentimes being a journalist “entails shapeshifting between being a detective, therapist and confidant,” explained Katie Pegler, a former editor of mine at the now defunct title 944.

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“Every situation is different, but the International Code of Medical Ethics kind of ties into my approach with a ‘physician-patient relationship.’ Simply put, loyalty and trust,” said the freelance writer and communications specialist. “On the other hand, sometimes you have to act as ‘legal counsel’ and walk out of a situation and/or conversation to not be involved. There are also ‘break-glass-in-case-of-emergency situations’ that tie into both aspects of mentality with those whom I interview. Thankfully, I’ve never been there — but push can come to shove if legitimate danger to anyone is referenced.”

“All in all,” she said, “It boils down to integrity, balance, safety and trust for on-versus-off the record — a tightrope.”

I reached out to a number of journalists who I’ve either worked with or followed during my career to ask them what it meant to them to go off the record. Here’s what they said:

Yes, we’re off the record, but can we go back on?

When a reporter calls you and asks you a question, assume it’s on the record. And if you ask to go off the record, Andrew Edwards with the Long Beach Press-Telegram is going to try to get you back on.

“A veteran editor I worked with at The (San Bernardino) Sun made a point of advising me to nudge sources back to going on the record when they ask to go off the record,” he said.

Andrew was one of the first people I met when I moved to Southern California is 2004. We both worked at the Daily Pilot covering coastal Orange County, one of several titles at the LA Time’s Community News Division. Edwards now covers news in Long Beach, where Amplify happens to be based.

“I think going off the record can be valuable if a source can provide a tip or point you toward information that can be confirmed elsewhere,” he said. But being a reporter means getting direct quotes and Edwards said that if he is seeking a comment from a relevant source and “they don’t want to go on the record right away, I might let them talk off the record and then ask what he or she may want to say on the record.” He added that once “people get a chance to hear their own words, they decide that their take is not too controversial.”

Can someone walk back a statement once it’s on the record?

“Depending on who that person is, there are times when you have to refuse the request,” he said. “If someone is not used to talking to reporters, it may be OK to do that but to let them know that they need to be clear in advance that they don’t want to be on record. If it’s someone who should be saavy with the media, I was taught at the Daily Pilot that it may be appropriate to give them a freebie but make clear you won’t go retroactively off record ever again.”

Sometimes a reporter will allow a source to go off the record with the intention of cajoling them back on, explained Gil Kaufman a freelance writer who often contributes to Venues Today and other music industry publications.

“If I sense the source is getting squirrel-y about broaching a subject, I will ask them if they want to go off the record. In general I try to avoid offering that, though,” he said. “Going off the record is usually a pain in my ass, in that it means I’m usually getting a great bit of information that I can’t use. It is helpful if I negotiate it with the source,” or if he can “allude to the gist of it without naming anyone in other interviews and maybe tease out some of the information in print.”

Are we on regular background or deep background?

Most people have two modes when they’re speaking to the media — on the record and off the record. But when you cover the music industry and its colorful cast of characters and propensity for backstabbyness, you start to enter interesting sub-realms explained Debbie Speer with Pollstar. Speer is a veteran reporter and someone I work with on a weekly, if not daily basis. After all, Amplify is powered by Pollstar. She told me that once it’s established that the conversation is off the record, she can then “negotiate exactly what kind of ‘off the record’ the source is demanding.”

Typically there’s three tiers — the first is ‘don’t use my name,’ where a source confirms to the reporter that something is true, but doesn’t want to be on the record confirming any information. Next is “talking on background,” which Speer said means that the reporter “can use the info, but not quote directly,” followed by “deep background” where the reporter can’t use the info directly in a story because it might potentially implicate the source, but the info does prompt her to “start finding others to corroborate” the story. She said most people who spell it out in thus much detail “are almost always corporate communications types.”

Of course, sometimes everything gets jumbled up. She mentioned a time when “I had a promoter go on a rant about another, shall we say, ‘heritage’ promoter without a hint of anything being off the record. Promoter No. 1 basically referred to Promoter No. 2 as a bottom-feeding thief and, I believe, ‘an asshole,’ though I didn’t use that exact nomenclature in the story. Turns out that the two had recently settled a lawsuit that included a non-disparagement clause. Of course, Promoter No. 1 called my boss screaming that I had violated a promised confidence that could get him sued and that he would sue us if I remained on the payroll. Fortunately, I had it all on tape and I’m still here.”

Going off the record with law enforcement

It’s one thing to go on background with a promoter or agent, but when your job is to cover crime and police, what you write could impact major investigations and ongoing court cases. I reached out to Tarmo Hannula with the Register-Pajaronian in Watsonville, Calif. The RP was the first newspaper job I had out of college and on a good day, I was assigned to work alongside Hannula — today he is still one of the most important mentors I’ve ever had in my career and he taught so much about what it meant to be a fully dedicated reporter.

“On the record, for me, means that when I inform someone I am working on a newspaper article and I am gathering info and quotes from them, that what they say can go in my article,” explained Hannula. “Off the record means just that, not for print.”

He said he finds that law enforcement officials and attorneys have a fairly sophisticated grasp of the rules of off the record. In a fraternal world like policing, trust is essential and once an officer establishes a relationship with Hannula, they feel more comfortable speaking with him about confidential issues.

“Going off the record is valuable in that it can give me a sense, especially in long-term, of ongoing stories like a trial or lengthy investigation,” he said. “A ranking police officer might pull me aside and say ‘off the record, yes, this is a strong case because we not only have surveillance footage of the suspect but we also found shell casings.'”

He said most law enforcement keep their statements off the record because they don’t want to “pollute their case by possibly informing (possible) outstanding suspects of what they know.” Once an arrest is made, information can become even more elusive. No cop or prosecutor, Hannula said, wants to say something that might compromise a court case.

“This is JV, it’s just a bunch of shit?”

Every once in a while, a reporter has to deal with a jerk who will run their mouth and then get angry when they see their words in print. It’s a dare that usually works out very badly, as explained by Jon Chown, another very important mentor in my career and editor at the Register-Pajaronian:

My very first story as a full-time paid journalist was to write a preview on the Oroville High JV football team. So I went to a practice and talked to the coach. “Why are you here, this is JV, it’s just a bunch of shit?” he asked. I told him that whether or not it was, it was my assignment, and I held my tape recorder up to his face and asked my questions. “What’s the team look like this year?” “Shit. This is JV football.” “Umm, how about your quarterback?” “Horrible, can’t really throw. He’s just a freshman. This is JV football, it’s just a bunch of shit.” “Uhh, you’re running backs, got anybody with some speed out there?” “No, they’re all pretty slow. This is JV football, it’s just a bunch of shit.” “Have you got anybody any good? How about your defense?” “Nope. This is JV football. It’s just a bunch of shit.” After asking a few more questions and getting the same answer, I went back to the office and told my sports editor that I had nothing. The coach wouldn’t say a single positive thing about these kids. “The only thing he said is JV football is just a bunch of shit.” “Well you can’t write that,” the sports editor Mike Tupa told me. “The hell he can’t!” the editor of the paper, Roger Aylsworth, yelled from inside his office. “In this business Jon, if you’re not pissing somebody off, you’re not doing your job.” So I wrote it. After it printed the coach said it was all off record and would not speak to me, and even got other coaches not to speak to me for a time. Then I wrote about that, and it stopped. The School board told them to wise up or be fired.