On or off the record? Journalism sourcing 101
Kurt Wagner '12
In July, White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci called a reporter from The New Yorker to press him for the source of a quote, and then proceeded to rant and rave about working in the White House. The conversation, including some salacious quotes, ended up in a story that ultimately played a part in Scaramucci’s firing.
Scaramucci was upset that the conversation was made public, explaining that he thought it was off the record. The reporter obviously believed otherwise.
How do journalists decide when to use someone’s name in a story versus describing a source in more cryptic terms?
How does that happen? How do journalists decide when to use someone’s name in a story versus describing a source in more cryptic terms?
Journalists and reporters rely on sources, usually insiders, to help them gather and support material for a story, but the name of the person who provided said material is not always revealed. Instead, a reporter might attribute information to “a senior White House official,” or even more mysteriously, “a source familiar with the situation.”
It all depends on the relationship between the journalist and his or her source, and whether the conversation between them was on the record, on background, on deep background, or off the record. It’s important for all parties involved to agree on a type of conversation before a conversation takes place. Scaramucci learned that the hard way.
So that you never find yourself in a similar situation, here’s a definition of each of the four conversation types:
On the record: Everything a source says can be used or quoted in a story and can be attributed to the source by name.
On background: Everything shared by the source can be used or quoted in a story, but the source can’t be named. Usually, the journalist and source will agree beforehand on how the source will be identified (e.g., “a former company executive”).
On deep background: Everything shared can be used in the story, but usually not in the form of quotes. The source can’t be named or identified in any way (e.g., “a source familiar with the company’s plans”).
Off the record: Nothing from the conversation can be used in the story or attributable to the source. Journalists can still use this information to go out and find other sources to confirm it. Basically: Here is some info—go find someone else to confirm it before you use it.
Traditionally, as long as a journalist has properly identified himself/herself as a journalist, he/she will treat everything you say as “on the record” unless established otherwise. This is what happened with the Scaramucci conversation. Scaramucci himself admitted as much after the fact, saying the conversation was “legally” on the record, but that “the spirit of it was off [the record].”
Scaramucci, as White House communications director, should have known better. But these different conversation types can be tricky, in part, because most people outside of the journalism world don’t understand the differences.
Many sources I talk to, for example, will tell me something they describe as “off the record,” but really they mean “deep background.” “Off the record” is a phrase that has made its way into popular culture, so it’s used more often.
All that said, the descriptions above for “deep background” and “background” are not universal. Each news organization or journalist may treat conversations in those tiers slightly differently. Again, that’s why it’s important to establish the type of conversation you’re having with a reporter before you start it.
Journalists with any training will go to great lengths to protect their sources. That often means keeping a source’s identity hidden, sometimes even from editors, and ensuring that conversations take place in a secure environment.
Journalists with any training will go to great lengths to protect their sources. That often means keeping a source’s identity hidden, sometimes even from editors, and ensuring that conversations take place in a secure environment. In today’s digital world that can mean using encrypted messaging services, such as Signal or WhatsApp, versus a traditional SMS text message or email. Talking to a journalist doesn’t have to be scary, but you should also know what you’re getting into.