Off the Record: A Journalist’s Tricky but Necessary Business

I protect people’s anonymity because otherwise, they won’t talk but it severely complicates my work as a journalist

Rule number 1: try to get someone to go on the record. If a source stands by their word, it’s more potent than the shadow we cast on our stories by using sources.

Having someone on record also takes the pressure off me and generally makes my work more manageable, but that’s not always possible (read about how I have made enemies).

People are paranoid. They are scared of making outrageous claims; or what they think will be perceived as controversial (sometimes it’s not, they’re just scared). They don’t want to be in the spotlight, they’re private, humble (possibly). People don’t trust journalists (*big sigh*). Sometimes their position demands secrecy and, sometimes, people are simply lying and putting their name to a statement would expose them as a fraud.

These people won’t talk unless the conversation is off the books, off the record, on background and remains unattributable. What does off the record mean anyway? Different things to different people, unfortunately.

A messy ordeal

Can you still use the information just not attribute it to the person? Or does it mean you can’t use the information at all as the conversation was private? So, the information was just for my knowledge and understanding?

To me, off-record means that I can still use the information but I can’t attribute it to that person and have to find another way to confirm it. The problem is, not everyone gets all this nuance.

The biggest mistake I made early on in developing sources was not being clear about what off the record meant and how the relationship should progress. Just the other day, I confirmed and reconfirmed with a source the use, and attribution, of the information he gave me destined for a story.

As journalists, we often don’t want to have a conversation about attribution because we fear they’ll bolt out the door (or hang up the phone), not trust us or retaliate in some way once they find out we did publish what they fed us. I’m for transparency, so I do my best to always clear the air.

So if you’re developing a source you need to ask:

* Why can’t you go on the record? (Rule 1, remember?)
* How do you know what you know?
* What does off the record mean to you?

That first question will expose if they have a legitimate reason to or not to be off the record. If you dig deeper, maybe they will go on record.

In the past, I’ve pushed sources on these questions and found that some sources are so close to the news at hand, it would be apparent where the information came from. The source would be exposed, so, why did they tell me? God only knows but they have an agenda.

On other occasions, I’ve found out they know nothing of value and got what they know from a conversation with someone over lunch. Chinese whispers anyone?

Sometimes they have direct access to classified information (the definition of a real source, I might add). The reverse can also be true, you’ve had someone who’s told you something they shouldn’t, they didn’t mean to but you know they could lose their job. You’ll need to protect both of these sources.

Complications heat up

Taking someone off the record is a dilemma which is hard for journalists to solve. We have an important story that unearths something that’s not in the public domain and feel compelled to write about it. It’s critical, but we also want to value and protect the people who supply the information. We can’t publish the news because the source won’t confirm the information on the record. We get stuck!

In many of the business deals I’ve covered as a financial journalist, nearly all the parties are bound by non-disclosure agreements. So, how do I get the story out?

The investigation demands a complicated mess of talking to multiple parties to corroborate the information. You’ll see sometime like “according to people familiar with the moves” as in this scoop by Aaron Stevens on Deutsche Bank’s management reshuffle.

That’s why getting people on record makes my life tons easier. Confirming the information via multiple independent sources is both hard, takes time, and demands patience and tenacity.

Any serious publication won’t take source-based reporting lightly. It will require at minimum two — but more than often — multiple independent sources to say the same thing. You need to work hard to corroborate each morsel of information with precision. There is a ton of pushback from editors and, as a reporter, you need to be crystal clear about who you sources are and why they demand to be off-record (hence the questions above).

You need an understanding of how sources know what they know and linguistic finesse to compile their comments into an accurate and true picture of the situation. Serious reporting also demands that all parties in the story get a fair chance to comment. If they haven’t, our job hasn’t been done right.

Using sources is tricky business, demands finesse, can undermine the credibility of a story, expose inadequacies in our reporting but sometimes it’s the only way for journalists to shed light on dark spots and a tool we can’t work without.

If you agree to take the conversation off the record, you have to stick to it as your integrity is on the line. If you go out and quote the person after agreeing to an off-record interview, it will damage your reputation, tarnish the publication’s and expose someone who might be in serious trouble.

Protecting your source could even mean you go to jail, and journalists do.

In the end, the journalist’s rule is simple: if it’s not true, it’s not a story. Source or not.

Originally published at



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Johannes K.

I muse on being a journalist, author and on life. Husband. Father of two beautiful girls. Tennis & CrossFit.