For the Record, What "Off the Record" Means

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
June 22 1999 7:47 PM

For the Record, What "Off the Record" Means

(Continued from Page 1)

Postie No. 2: "When people have tried to call things deep background, I take that as a sign that they don't know what they're talking about ... I just don't take the term seriously at all."

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Postie No. 3: "I take that to mean that you can use the information but you can't attribute it, period." Also, "it's up to you to satisfy yourself that it's good information by doing good reporting."

Postie No. 4: "You can't use it, I guess? You can only use it to get more information? I have no idea."

Postie No. 5: "That means you practically can't use it. The context would have to be quite special to use the information at all. And so it would be something like, "Contradicting earlier fears that the East Wing would be blown up, the structure stood as of this morning." According to this person, "deep background" differs from "background" thusly: With "background," the information can be imparted as the main thrust of the story; with "deep background," the information only can be imparted in an incidental way--not as the main thrust of the story.

Not for attribution

This is the one term that Chatterbox finds genuinely useful when talking to sources, perhaps because it is the least jargon-ridden. It is also the only term on whose meaning all the Posties agree. Here is how Postie No. 2 phrased it: "Able to quote but with a characterization that links it to a smallish number of people."

Off the record

This term sounds straightforward, but to Chatterbox's thinking it is really the most confusing. The Postie poll bears that out:

Postie No. 1: "Most of the time, when people say off the record, they don't really mean it ... I have no idea what 'off the record' means."

Postie No. 2: "When people try to tell me something is off the record, it means you can't use this ... I just try not to have off-the-record conversations."

Postie No. 3: "It means that you can't use it unless you are able to report it." The source is "giving you a tip that you can go report as kind of a blind tip." But, in this person's view, the reporter may not tell other sources that he's been told this information, even if he refuses to provide clues as to the tipster's identity.

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