In an effort to shed more light on how we work, The Times is running a series of short posts explaining some of our journalistic practices. Read more of this series here.
President Trump has ignored bedrock diplomatic alliances. He has stared directly into an eclipse. His disregard for the “off” part of an off-the-record meeting would seem to surprise exactly no one.
But the president’s decision to speak publicly about his recent private discussion with A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, has prompted questions from some readers: What does “off the record” really mean? How does it work in practice?
This particular case was straightforward, in theory. At the request of the White House, both parties agreed not to talk about their July 20 meeting publicly. Then Mr. Trump tweeted merrily about the encounter anyway. And then, with the agreement voided by Mr. Trump’s comments, The Times responded by challenging his version of events.
While these exact circumstances — a sitting president placing a private meeting on the record on a whim — are uncommon, wrangling over the terms of a given conversation is a constant concern for many journalists.
As a national political reporter for The Times, I have heard all manner of after-the-fact pleading from politicians who regretted their words.
Politicians who insisted an on-the-record comment was actually off the record. (It was not.)
Politicians who acknowledged that, yes, they’d said the thing they said, but what if we pretended they hadn’t? (Not how this works.)
Politicians who promised unspecified future scoops, if only I’d convert their ill-advised comments from on the record to off the record. (No deal.)
As a general principle, a reporter’s best course of action is to establish jargon-free parameters in plain English at the start: Can a source be quoted by name? Can we use the information if we leave out the name? Can we at least describe the source’s job?
But among those who have long dealt with the news media, like politicians and their charges, there is occasionally a sort of shorthand for these questions. Below, you’ll find a brief primer on the kinds of conversations journalists have with sources — and the kinds of conversations we have about those conversations.
(One caveat, which cannot be repeated enough: There is no universally agreed-upon meaning for many of these terms — and The Times has no precise descriptions in its own internal guidelines — making it difficult to sketch out even working definitions. Let’s try anyway.)
On the record: This is the easy one — and a journalist’s strong preference at all times. Speakers can be named speaking the words they spoke. Enjoy responsibly.
If no rules are set in advance, the assumption is that everything is on the record: comments, eye-rolls, life in all its majesty. Sometimes, after an especially punchy flourish, a hammy politician might say something like, “And you can quote me on that!” This is generally not in doubt, but it’s always fun to hear anyway.
Off the record: Ideally, terms are established at the start. And since nothing from the conversation can be used for publication, journalists are, ideally, cleareyed about the consequences of this arrangement, if they agree to it at all: Sources will have their own agendas, trying to shape future coverage to their liking.
Still, there can be benefits for a reporter, including the chance to see newsmakers in an unguarded setting. Do they know what they’re talking about? Do they seem overconfident? The chat is off the record, but the impressions last.
Often, even the existence of the conversation is to remain private. But sometimes, as with Mr. Trump’s tweet about The Times, the other side starts talking.
A lower-stakes example from my own experience: the ballad of Ted Cruz and the mediocre Chinese food. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Cruz held an off-the-record session with several reporters who were traveling with him, in the lounge area of a New Hampshire hotel lobby. Per the agreed-upon rules, no journalist reported on it.
But at his news conference the next morning, Mr. Cruz alluded to the evening on camera, making a remark about our Chinese food order. So, now it can be confirmed: A bunch of us ate Chinese food in Ted Cruz’s company at some hotel in New Hampshire more than two years ago. It feels good to say out loud.
Background: Now it gets less intuitive. Generally, “on background” is understood to mean that the information can be published, but only under conditions agreed upon with the source. There can be good reasons for this — say, government employees sharing news-making documents that they would only volunteer without a name attached.
A reporter might negotiate with those sources to at least describe their jobs in broad strokes, to give a reader proper context: “a federal worker who shared the material,” “a government official with access to the information.” Anything is better than “a source,” which adds nothing (and which The Times does not abide as a description for a source in print).
Of course, politicians — and, at least as often, those who work for them — try to abuse this sourcing status with impunity. Orwellian turns like, “On background, we can’t comment,” are common, as are attempts to cloak the most loathsome clichés in anonymity for no valid reason: “On background, we’re running our race and the only poll that matters is on Election Day.” On background: No.
Deep background: This is where establishing ground rules is particularly important, since many journalists and sources have competing definitions. For some, there is no practical distinction between “background” and “deep background,” except that the latter sounds brooding and mysterious, evoking dark shadows and empty garages. Others interpret the term to mean that information can be used only for the reporter’s context and understanding, with no attribution of any kind.
Phrases like “not for attribution” and “no fingerprints” are familiar refrains for those who traffic in deep background, as though each article were a sort of linguistic crime lab. “Please note in your story that my primary opponent hates puppies and liberty. No fingerprints!”
And yet, there is merit in these kinds of conversations, when the circumstances are right. Sources come to reporters for all sorts of reasons — many of them less than pure — that have no bearing on the quality of the information itself.
If fingerprint-free material can be verified independently, these exchanges can have tremendous value. Many of our best scoops are the fruit of such encounters. And you can quote me on that.
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