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Off the record, on background, and not for attribution: What does it all mean?

Media interviews can sometimes be a jumble of terminology, but none are so vexing — or misunderstood — as the trifecta of non-attribution: “off the record”, “on background” and “not for attribution.”


It’s easy to throw these terms around in an interview, but before you do, proceed with ultimate caution. First and foremost, it’s important to understand that when you sit down with a reporter, nothing is actually off the record. If you utter a secret and someone promises to keep it, they may accidentally spill the beans down the road, or they may choose not to honor any agreement you make with them. Loose lips have long sunk ships, so if you have news that needs to stay zipped up, don’t spill it for any reason.


But sometimes you want to give a reporter a little insight, but you want to do so without your name being attached to that tidbit, or without all the details included. Here’s how to make sure you and the reporter understand each other.


The first rule to understand: When you speak to a reporter, you are on the record unless clearly, explicitly stated otherwise. And what does it mean to be on the record?


It means everything you say in the conversation can be used in a journalist’s article, and attributed to you, with your full name and job included. Unless you agree before you speaking that the conversation is NOT on the record, then it is. You can’t say something and then later ask for it to be scrubbed from the record. There are no take backs. Set the parameters clearly in advance before you begin speaking if you don’t want to be on the record for any portion of your conversation.


Here are some terms to familiarize yourself with that reporters may discuss with you.


Off-the-record


When you ask a reporter to speak off the record, you’re asking that nothing you say be used in publication, but you’re letting the reporter know something that they can then use in their own research as they build the story. The reporter can then choose, when interviewing another source, to mention the information you’ve provided them (without your name attached) to verify its validity or build upon their story.


Not for attribution:


This means your comment can be used as a quote by the journalist, but without your name included. So if you give a quote to a reporter but you agree prior to giving it that it’s “not for attribution,” the reporter may choose to print something like:


“Companies that focus on weapons technology and information security are increasingly seeking partnerships with budding companies in China and South Korea,” a senior technology executive based in New York said.


On background:


When you offer information on background and the reporter agrees to accept it as such, that means the information you give can be used, but it can’t be quoted directly and your name cannot be attributed. This might end up being printed in a way that reads as follows:


Technology companies are building new partnerships across political borders, and sources say that start-ups in both China and South Korea are being eyed as allies in the race to bolster security software against common political enemies.


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