Talking to reporters: on the record vs. off the record vs. on background
How not to give an accidental interview
Sam Bankman-Fried recently gave an accidental interview to a Vox reporter, resulting in one of the most remarkable articles in recent memory.
The below tweet is about running FTX into the ground, but it applies just as well to his accidental interview:
The first time he fucked up was when he assumed the reporter was his friend (or, even if she were, that this would somehow negate her also being a reporter). The second time was when he neglected to confirm that the conversation was off the record.
Accidental interviews happen all the time, even to people who deal a lot with the press.
Famously, Anthony Scaramucci, who was fired as White House communications director for an accidental interview he gave to the New Yorker, claimed that the “spirit” of the conversation was that it was off the record — but he never confirmed that with New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, who published an article with the amazing title and subtitle, “Anthony Scaramucci Called Me to Unload About White House Leakers, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon: He started by threatening to fire the entire White House communications staff. It escalated from there.”
It’s also happened to an exec of a top PR agency, whose email to a reporter “on background not for attribution” was screenshotted and posted on Twitter along with this note:
It’s even happened to experienced journalists, like Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. She sent an email to a Politico reporter with the subject line, “OFF THE RECORD,” prompting Politico to print the following: “Since we never agreed to conduct such an off-the-record conversation, we are publishing it below in full...”
But it will not happen to Flack readers! Let’s review the rules together.
First and foremost: any time you are speaking with any reporter, in any setting, you have to clarify the ground rules before having the conversation.
These are the common protocols.
On the record
Unless you specify otherwise, you are on the record.
Your name, your title, your quotes, and even your body language are fair game. Your “no comment”? On the record. Your “ums” and “uhs”? On the record. Your outfit? On the record. You ordered pineapple pizza at lunch? All on the record; none to blame but yourself.
Reporters naturally prefer when you’re on the record, and it’s not on them to remind you that you are. It’s on you to ask and get confirmation otherwise if you don’t want to be.
Use this when: you want your exact words and identity to be reported, when you’re making an announcement, or when you want your statements to carry maximum weight. If you’re defending yourself against an attack, go on the record and say it with your chest.
Off the record
Fight Club, for example, was very much off the record.
When you’re off the record (which, again, is only after you’ve asked and they’ve agreed), you can’t be quoted, you can’t be mentioned as a source, and what you’re saying can’t even be paraphrased. The reporter simply can’t use the information in their story.
But that doesn’t mean it’ll never make it into print: if a journalist is able to get other sources to tell them that same information, it becomes fair game to report. You can’t prevent them from investigating further or talking to other people.
Being off the record also won’t prevent the reporter from forming an impression of you. If you say something dumb or sketchy, it may not get reported but it will still taint your credibility.
Use this when: you want to build a relationship or inform their future reporting through providing context. Even off the record, never divulge something you actually want to keep a secret.
The conditions for being on background should be negotiated each time.
In general, a reporter can use the information you give them, either with a quote or a paraphrase, but they can’t identify you by name. It can get murky though, so make sure you negotiate exactly how you’ll be described. It’s a negotiation because a reporter wants to maximize the credibility of their coverage by being as specific as possible (“according to a human female” won’t cut it for their editor), while you probably want to protect your identity by being more vague. Often they’ll say something like, “according to a person familiar with the situation.”
Use this when: you want to provide context that might shape the reporting or want specific information to be included, but without identifying yourself as the source. An example would be if you’re sharing views on policy issues but don’t want to make news by appearing to endorse any political positions.
On deep background
This term is even more nebulous. Typically, deep background means that your identity will be obscured and you won’t be quoted. You should carefully negotiate the exact terms, or better yet, just don’t use this at all. I think it’s usually just code for, “on background — but make me sound mysterious.”
Unless you’re meeting someone in a parking garage to report a presidency-ending scandal, spare yourself the eye roll of whoever is on the receiving end of this request.
Use this when: you’re breaking open a massive government scandal.
Some additional notes
Anything you say might become an interview — dinner conversation, DMs, or an encounter on the street can all count as an interview. And the interviewer doesn’t have to have a press badge, by the way. There’s nothing stopping anyone from tweeting something you said to them. Citizen journalism!
When in doubt, skip the jargon and just discuss in plain English what you think should happen: will you be quoted by name? Will you be unnamed but described in some other way, like “a person familiar with the matter”? Will the information you’re giving be reported, or used in any other way?
Think of these terms as a gentleman’s agreement, not as a legally binding contract. It’s the ethical thing to protect sources, but nothing is guaranteed in this world. Even Bob Woodward has given up the identity of a source who spoke to him off the record, and it’s common practice for reporters to share the identity of unnamed sources with editors.
Unless there’s a really good reason, avoid switching back and forth between off the record and on the record during an interview. It creates friction and potential for misunderstanding.
Don’t just assume an interview is over because it “feels” over, or you’re packing up to leave or whatever. If you’re in earshot, the interview is still going.
I strongly recommend dispensing with elaborate crane dances around benign information, like the corporate PR person who goes on background just to send a link to their own website. It’s counterproductive for building trust, and it’s lame. The Verge’s ethics statement gives some great pointers for how corporate PR can be less annoying, and everyone who deals with the press should read it.
And always remember, if you haven’t clearly negotiated the terms of an interview in advance, this is the only thing you should be saying:
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As a seasoned former journalist, I do hope more journos and spokespeople read this post.
Great article. I was interviewed by the NYT recently and the boundaries between all of these areas was entirely frustrating to me. I asked to preview the article before publishing and it's "against their policy" etc. This is a good framework.