Why would anyone speak to the press off the record?

Apparently it’s quite common to speak to the press off the record. In some cases, this understanding gets famously garbled with disastrous results.

Why would anyone in their right mind say anything to a journalist that they don’t want published, even if there is a clear understanding that it won’t be? What possible benefit could there be to anyone except the journalist? If I ever get famous, and I hope I don’t, I will never make an off-the-record statement.

Can I quote you on that?

They USED to respect you on that. In the old days especially it was essential to show the press you were on their side. Oh sure it’s not likely they’d cover up a murder, but they’d overlook a lot of other things. So you tell them things about you “off the record” and they would reach an “agreement” with you.

So much for honor eh :smiley:

Because they might lose their job or otherwise be harmed by being “on the record.” I’m rather shocked this wasn’t patently obvious.

Well, yeah. But I don’t think that’s really the question. I think the question is, if the person isn’t willing to be quoted “on the record”, why are they willing to tell a journalist anything at all?


It’s pretty common that someone in a position to know something will want a story to get out, but won’t want to be known for putting it out.

My understanding is that there’s a difference between “This is off the record” (don’t print it) and “Don’t quote me” (say it’s from an anonymous source). For the latter, it’s a matter of wanting something to be told but not wanting to be punished for telling it. For the former, I imagine it’s a matter of wanting the reporter to know (just why I couldn’t say, but I don’t doubt there are viable reasons) but not wanting the public to know.

Depends on who is speaking, but generally it is done in the assumption that the reporter will be sympathetic to your position if she knows the truth, but the truth itself remains politically dangerous.

It is often useful to be able to speak openly to a journalist without being held accountable for every stray word. For example, if I want to institute a policy that targets minority gangs causing problems in an area, it is convenient to be able to say that when talking to a reporter about the details. But if I actually said that I was targeting minorities it is likely to be political suicide. So I give an off the record interview explaining the purpose of the plan, and then I give the formal policy interview son the record using weasel words.

Other times it’s done to announce something without making it official. For example if I want to test a new policy to legalise cannabis, I can tell a journalist “off the record” that this is my intent, and it will be published as coming form a credible source. I can then gauge public reaction and if I need to backpeddle I can do so with no loss of face.

The alternative to the off the record comment are to either announce it formally or to announce it anonymously. If I announce it formally then I have burned my bridges. If I have to retract it then I am seen as wishy-washy, and if I keep it I will get hammered in the polls. If I announce it anonymously then it will have little traction. An anonymous person telephoning a newspaper and announcing that the legislature is legalising cannabis is just going to be ignored. So I give an off-the record interview, the newspaper knows that they can print without fear of being branded unreliable and I am quoted as an anonymous source.

This is absolutely true–the latter is “not for attribution,” which is on the record but not naming the source (“an official close to the investigation said,” introducing a direct quote). People may speak “on deep background,” not to have their words reported, but still for the purpose of getting a story out. They are giving the reporter information to put him on a certain track, or in the hopes of seeing the story presented a certain way.

never been involved in anything like this, but my WAG is that in cases where there is a legitimate reason for “off-the-record” one reason might be that the reporter comes to a source with a story and the story is wrong or off track. The source might not be able to tell the reporter anything that would get published, but he might wish to steer the reporter closer to the truth. Perhaps the incorrect story is damaging or embarrassing. Then the source would want to steer the reporter away from that. In the old days, maybe, reporters and sources trusted one another enough for this to work. Now, it seems like no one trusts anything or anyone-present company excepted of course. :slight_smile:

The main reasons are that the source feels it’s important for the public to know or understand something that he’s not authorized to talk about, or that he has an axe to grind. These reasons often go hand in hand. But if people didn’t give off teh record statements, what do you think newspapers would print? Just press releases all day long.


A large proportion of off-the-record statements are of the nature, “I can’t tell you anything about this, but off the record, you should talk to XYZ and look up ABC.”

There are at least two sides to every story. That’s deeper than it appears.

Reporters are not evil, despite what was said above, and the good ones aren’t stupid. What they are is ignorant. Think about it. Every day you are sent out with the assignment to turn in a perfect little essay on a subject you know nothing or very little about. You have to learn the subject, get the background, meet the people, filter through their biases, distill their ramblings and things they think you already know, create the context, and tell the public what is happening and why in a very few words so that they feel they have real understanding of a subject they know nothing or very little about. It’s impossible, which is why most newspaper stories aren’t all that good.

The best reporters have a beat, that is, they get assigned to a subject or location so that they can learn. They get to know the subject by talking to as many people as possible. Much of the talking is pure background. What do you do here? What is the team, business, Senate like? What obstacles do you face? What are your challenges? A good reporter tries to talk to everybody. Everybody. Repeatedly. Not just for one particular story, but always. This is crucial to learning. It also makes good interpersonal sense. People like to talk about what they do. They’re proud of it, most of the time, and when they aren’t proud of it they like to gripe. When a particular story comes up on a particular issue, the reporter knows who wants to talk.

But many, if not most, entities - business, politics, government, sports, entertainment, anybody that is likely to have their conflicts reported - have strict policies on who can speak to the press openly. This makes sense in that having a jumble of conflicting messages reported, perhaps to a variety of competing reporters, would muddy the official line. But the official line is often not sufficient, not informative, or just plain lying or misdirection. Do you think you know better what should be said than what the PR people are saying? If you have half an ounce of brains, obviously you do. And you want to reinforce what you said earlier to the reporter, because the official line may contradict that, making you look like an idiot. And you want the reporter to keep talking to you, because talking is important. It’s how we validate our lives.

The real question is not why anyone would speak to the press off the record. It’s why *everyone *doesn’t speak to the press off the record. The logic of the situation dictates that only a few people are allowed to put their names on a quote, but nobody with that half ounce of brains will ever say anything that is not phony and managed for publication. True, there are an endless number of quotes proving that many people lack even a half ounce of brains. But it’s the reporter’s job to get names onto a quote so that readers can have accountability and not assume that the reporter is making it all up. It’s the quotee’s job not to have to the responsibility for telling the unvarnished facts. It’s amazing that the reporter wins this game as much as actually happens.

However, the logic is clear. Yes, you should talk to the press. Always, and at length. But always off the record. The only alternative is if you are in a position where all publicity is good publicity and having your name in the paper is a net good no matter what you say. Politicians have this luxury, but members of the executive branch do not. Team owners and coaches have this luxury, but not their assistants. CEOs have this luxury but hardly anybody lower down. You, the majority you, are invisible, unappreciated, and told to shut up even when you know your subject a thousand times better. It’s an unstable situation, and it will never change.

I have always understood that to mean ‘I will deny I said any of this if you quote me, but here is the information the public should know that conveniently pushes my agenda forward’.

Every company I have ever worked for in the pharmaceutical and defense industries has always had a strict policy about the fact that employees are forbidden from talking to the press and that all request for interviews are to be forwarded to HR. Well, that’s a reasonable request when the company is protecting competitive business information that benefits everyone within the company (even if the benefit is just getting to keep your job), but no so much when a business move is going to screw the employees.

I worked for a small private company years ago that was acquired by a very large public company and we were all employee owners at the time. Years before that successful deal happened, the former CEO tried to pull some shenanigans to sell the company for a pittance to a different large private company that we as the employees all hated and neither wanted to work for, nor would have resulted in us getting a fair price for the stock. Despite the “no talking to the press” rules, all kinds of details about that first crooked deal were exposed in the press that were all ‘anonymous’ and resulted in the deal getting soured and the former CEO getting ousted. When the second deal went through that benefited everyone, no such leaks occurred.

Let me guess: because you have a wife and a family and a dog and a cat?

I have ben in one revolution where quite honestly you’d have died of boredom, I turned up for another revolt (As a representative for HMG, along with the others

Its useulley boring.

Off the record conversations are typically intended to allow the free flow of information without the risk of publication of any particular quote. You don’t have to worry about being precise with you language but you can help a reporter understand an issue.

Some reporters will not agree to such terms. After all, a bunch of information you can’t use is, well, useless.

Different reporters often have different definitions for “off the record,” “on background,” and “not for attribution.” And in some cases, reporters get confused about which part of a conversation is to be treated on the record or otherwise. And in still other cases the reporter may change their mind after they have the info.

Unless you are practiced at dealing with the media and know the reporter in question, it is usually a good idea to assume everything you say will be treated as on the record. Even for PR pros it can get dicey.

BTW, companies don’t restrict employee comments just because they are worried someone will make them look bad. Sometimes it is for the legal protection of the employee (even if the employee doesn’t realize it) and often it is because there are many complex disclosure related laws and regulations, especially for publicly traded cos and heavy regulated industries like pharma and financial services. And sometimes health and HR issues get entangled in related laws as well.

Exapno Mapcase has already done an excellent job of summing up the reasons why people would want to (and do) talk to the media “off the record”, but I’ll add that another reason is that “off-the-record” statements can sometimes provide some useful background to a situation for journalists (who may be wondering why the story is especially newsworthy in the first place) and hence to readers who may be wondering the same thing.

This is definitely true in my experience.

Just two days ago, I called a city manager to ask him to explain some figures from the latest Census report. On the record, he would say nothing, because any comments would have to come from the mayor.

However, the mayor is a small-town businessman who has not spent his entire life looking through government reports and using the data to figure out how to run a government with an $8 million budget. Off the record, the city administrator was perfectly happy to tell me what the numbers meant and how they would be used by the city.