On and Off Record. What Does it Really Mean?

In traditional journalism circles, “off the record” means that a journalist cannot use the quote even anonymously. Granted, people don’t often know what they mean when they employ the phrase. Sometimes they just want assurance that they won’t be quoted. Once negotiated, “on background” typically means you can use without attribution. But in a recent story by Slate‘s Dave Weigel, he sways on and off the record in a surprising manner. Surprising in that he uses “off the record” quotes that are supposed to be off the record. Are there different rules in Greenville, SC?

A look at his lede:

GREENVILLE, SC — On the record, the local Republican party is trying to make this matter. The governor is trying to make this matter. The media, with a collective shrug and a protest from the AP’s photo pool, is arguing otherwise. Off the record, the local GOP sort of agrees.

Then he goes on to quote his “off record” source: “Of all the guys here Tim Pawlenty is the only one who speaks my language,” one activist told me. “What language is that?” I asked. “Being able to win?*”

“Yes,” he said. “That.”

Read the full story here.

Want to know more? Read this fascinating piece on the varying meanings of on background, deep background, not for attribution and off the record in this 1999 Slate piece by Timothy Noah. Makes us want to conduct Noah’s experiment again and see if things have changed.

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