“Off the record.” It’s a well-known journalism phrase. So well known, in fact, that even those outside the business are familiar with it.
But what does it actually mean? The common belief among many is that when a source tells a reporter something “off the record” that means the reporter cannot or should not publicly share that information.
A term used in journalism meaning that the information given to the reporter cannot be attributed to the person saying it. To be off the record, the journalist must agree to it. … A person cannot declare himself off the record after statements are made and hope his statements will not be reported.
Nothing the source says during a discussion can be used in any way, shape or form. “You cannot put this into your article,” Cunningham says. But that doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time.
But that’s not exactly how it works. Just because a source says something is “off the record” does not mean it truly is “off the record.”
According to The Pointer Report, a source should ask a reporter first if something can be off the record. Then the reporter can agree or refuse. The source then can decide whether or not they want to share that information.
If the reporter agrees to an off-the-record request, the ethical thing to do is not report or even repeat that information. Off-the-record comments are supposed to remain strictly between the source and the reporter.
So that’s why it was odd when two journalists — two very prominent journalists, as a matter of fact — were at odds over whether something was or was not off the record. The incident even had other journalists mulling over the policy.
A Politico newsletter, West Wing Playbook, wrote an item about Washington Post opinion columnist Jennifer Rubin. The item called Rubin “one of the most reliable defenders of the Biden administration.”
It also wrote, “It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. Though it often dismisses the Beltway press, the administration can leverage the credibility that comes with a washingtonpost.com link.
And Rubin’s columns are frequently among the most popular on the site, according to Washington Post employees. But Rubin’s emergence as one of the administration’s go-to validators has stoked some divisions among Democrats and within the Post newsroom itself.”
There’s a bunch more, which you can read for yourself. But that led to Rubin reaching out to Alex Thompson, one of the West Wing Playbook authors and a White House reporter for Politico. According to Thompson, Rubin sent him an email with the subject line of “OFF THE RECORD.”
Thomson tweeted, “Since we never agreed to conduct such an off-the-record conversation, we are now publishing it in full.” Then he published Rubin’s comments, which were critical of Politico and came off as a little whiny, but certainly weren’t earth-shattering, vulgar or even newsworthy.
So was Thompson out of line or perfectly within his right to publish what Rubin sent him?
Journalism rules are on his side. He’s right. He didn’t agree to Rubin’s off-the-record request so Rubin cannot claim that Thompson broke a promise to keep her comments private.
Now, one could argue that what Thompson did was a little shady. He clearly knew that Rubin wanted to keep her email just between the two of them and he went ahead and published it anyway.
Some suggested that Thompson could have deleted the email as soon as he saw the “off the record” subject line. In other words, he could have treated Rubin’s subject line as a request to keep it off the record. If he didn’t want to honor that, he could have deleted the email. Or that once he opened the email, he was, in effect, agreeing to keep the exchange private.
That might have been the decent thing to do. But he wasn’t obligated to do so.
New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman weighed in tweeting, “For the uninitiated – and the initiated pretending they don’t know because it’s a fun way to slam a reporter – off the record is an agreement. Don’t send an email saying OTR – especially when you’re ostensibly in journalism! – and not wait for the reporter to agree.”
She added, “This is really basic stuff, and folks in the current White House – many of whom have long experience dealing with reporters – know this. People can take issue with the timing of a story or the subject of a story. But suggesting the reporter did something nefarious when the person didn’t follow the way OTR works is wrong.”
Rubin tweeted back, “no, just really low class when dealing with a fellow journalist on something not a newsworthy scoop! I mean really, who behaves that way…”
Haberman wasn’t having it, tweeting: “Why is this his responsibility and not yours to know how journalism works?
So bottom line: Thompson’s reputation might take a hit among some for publishing something that Rubin asked to be off the record, but he didn’t break one of journalism’s golden rules and Rubin should have known better than to simply trust Thompson wouldn’t run what she sent him.