What Does "Off the Record" Mean?
How journalists con the public with sourcing jargon.
Marcus Brauchli, editor of the Washington Post, was revealed this week to have misled Politico and the New York Times—inadvertently, he claims—when he said that information gleaned from controversial "salons" that the Post planned to charge lobbyists $25,000 to $250,000 to attend (with Post reporters and government officials as bait) would "inform our coverage." In fact, the revenue-raising salons, which were canceled after they came to light, were always intended to be off the record, and Brauchli knew that at the time. Brauchli maintains the discrepancy arose because the arrangement he'd contemplated would have followed the "Chatham House rule," which states: "[P]articipants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed." The Chatham House rule, Brauchli now concedes, does not accord with the Post's internal definition of "off the record," and the Post publicized the planned salons as "off the record." Brauchli admitted this in a Sept. 25 letter to Charles Pelton, the Post employee who organized the salons and last month left the Post. The letter came to light through a correction that the New York Times ran at the insistence of Pelton's lawyer.
The emerging consensus is that Brauchli lied to avoid blame for a widely condemned ethical lapse. He says he merely "failed to reconcile the language and the intentions." Truthful or not, Brauchli's alibi underscores a principle I demonstrated in a 1999 "Chatterbox" column: The professional jargon reporters use to describe sourcing ground rules is poorly understood within the profession in general and inside the Washington Post in particular, even though the Post has codified them in its stylebook. I concluded that journalists deliberately keep the applied meaning of terms like "off the record" and "background" fluid to maximize their latitude to impart information. In a 2006 follow-up, I applied this thesis to columnist Robert Novak's shaky claim that a Bush official spoke on "deep background" when he blew the cover of CIA employee Valerie Plame.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.