Reporting and attribution with Chuck Todd

NBCU Academy 101

“Meet the Press” anchor and NBC News political director Chuck Todd joins NBCU Academy to discuss reporting – how journalists should collect information, and types of attribution – on the record, off the record and on background. There can be a lot of confusion around these terms, and journalists should always be clear in setting ground rules with sources before any interview. 

On the record

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Information that is on the record can be used with no caveats. If your source agrees to be “on the record,” then you can quote the source by name and her/his affiliation.

On TV, this means putting them on camera, where their face is clearly visible and you can display their name. Remember to state clearly at the beginning of the interview that the conversation is on the record. 

On background

If a source shares information on background, this means the information can be published only under conditions negotiated with that source. Normally, that means no name or exact title can be used. Examples include “a senior White House official” or “a source familiar with the plans.” The reporter and their editor need to agree how we can characterize the source on TV or in an article. 

Anonymous sourcing can be a sensitive issue, and it is important not to rely too heavily on anonymous sources. They must be a primary source and have direct knowledge of a situation in order for any information to be reportable.

Off the record

If a source asks for your conversation to be off the record, it cannot be used for publication, either as quotes or summarizations. This information should not be repeated to another source or anyone outside of colleagues working directly on the story, such as another reporter or your editor. 

The term “off the record” can confuse people. As journalists, we should try to use plain language to make clear when something will not be reported on. Reporters must agree in advance about whether the interview is off the record. For example, a source might say something on the record and then ask for it to be off the record. As a reporter, you are not obligated to make that information off the record. 

Set ground rules early

If you are talking to a source who is unfamiliar with these journalistic terms, explain the terminology to them in the simplest terms so they can understand how their comments will be used.

Journalists should always consider why a source wants to be off the record or offer only background information. Sometimes, a source does not want to be associated with the information or is afraid of getting in trouble. As reporters, our job is to see if we can get them to give us the information on the record.

Sourcing can be complicated, but hopefully this lesson can make your interviews and your reporting go much more smoothly.

Always consider if the information is reliable, accurate and factual. Information on background or off the record does not absolve a journalist from basic fact-checking.
Chuck Todd