Explainer: What Does ‘Off the Record’ Mean?

man silencing the press, saying off the record

[Editor’s Note: Even the most experienced professionals need a refresher on basics from time to time. Whether it’s how to become a better writer or a review of PR ethics, PRNEWS aims to provide readers with explainers on a variety of topics and issues. Hence, our Explainer series is born.]

Previous posts looked at Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), NIL (name/image/likeness) and bounce rate.

Today we offer a deeper look at what "off the record" means.]

What does it mean to agree to 'off the record'?

“Off the record” is a phrase that can be used by a journalist or communicator during an interview or conversation. Some communicators or sources may wish to remain anonymous, but provide useful information to a member of the media. Some media may want to get to know a source or communicator better—without the source worrying about becoming the focal point of a story. Those conversations can also be off the record. 

If no one deems a conversation off the record, or sets rules in advance, most journalists will accept information gathered as “on the record.”

The Associated Press published a discussion of on/off the record rules, because not everyone has the same definition of off the record. It’s important to always clarify a definition before an interview or conversation, if needed. These are the AP's definitions:

  • “On the record: The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.”
  • “Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication.”

Some conversations may also include “on background.” This is defined as: “The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position.”  

Why this Matters to Communicators

Off the record can be a great tool for journalists and PR professionals to build rapport. However, it’s important to be very clear when discussing brand matters, or even casual information, with members of the press. Both parties represent their respective institutions.

More PRNEWS resources on 'off the record' in PR and communication:

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal