“Meet the Press” Anchor and NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd joins NBCU Academy to discuss the differences between the 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
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 their affiliation.
On TV, this means putting them on camera, where their face is clearly visible and you can display their name. In print, this means you can use their name and relevant identifying details. Remember to state clearly at the beginning of the interview that the conversation is on the record.
Information shared on background can be published only under conditions negotiated with that source. This usually means you can’t use their name or their exact title. 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. Do not repeat this information to another source or anyone outside of colleagues working directly on the story, such as another reporter or your editor.
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. You are not obligated to not use that information.
Set ground rules early
Terms can confuse people. Use plain language to explain if what they say will make it to publication or air.
Journalists should always consider why a source wants to be off the record or offer only background information. Sometimes, a source may is afraid of getting in trouble by publishing their name and identity. As reporters, our job is to see if we can get them to give us the information we can publish and use on air.