Recently, I was listening to Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast, and they were talking about the difference between “off the record” and “on background.” The show notes reference a 16 year old story debating the terms.
The term “on background” is pretty new to me, though I’ve used what it means a good bit. Basically, you can use the person as a source but you can’t implicate them in any way (and how/if your source is referenced at all is debated).
Apparently the definition of “off the record” isn’t very clear at all — even to journalists — and its common assumption has changed over time.
Previously, “off the record” was most often determined to mean its not to be talked about or written about at all, like a tip to then go figure the story out yourself. The “off the record” person is not a source at all.
Now, apparently a lot of journalists basically take it as something you can use but can’t implicate the source in the piece in any way. I find that odd.
I get told I’m “off the record” — yes, in our little WordPress news world — all the time, and it’s pretty annoying to be honest. I’m glad I’ve learned more about the “on background” terminology, because I’ve always treated “off the record” as “go figure it out yourself,” unless I clearly request permission for the parts I want to use, unattributed.
It’s probably time to be a bit more clear in these conversations.
Source: For the Record, What “Off the Record” Means (from 1999 but still an excellent resource).