Once upon a time the term ‘off the record’ may have referred to material which should be purely for background, and not to appear in any article. But there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about this. For most reporters, it actually means ‘not for attribution’ – in other words you can put this information in the article, but do not attach my name to it. In some circumstances though, you may want to brief reporters to give them a better understanding of a sensitive issue, or to steer them away from writing something that is inaccurate. If you don’t want your contribution to appear at all, you should make this 100% clear beforehand, and get their agreement that this is for background only, not to appear in any form. Normally reporters will stick to this convention, even if they would prefer an ‘on the record’ contribution. They will soon find no-one returns their calls if they get a reputation for being dangerous and untrustworthy. But even if they go against their promises and publish, they have not broken any law – so you have to recognise it will always be a risk. A frequent tactic for those having to deal with sensitive topics is to agree to a ‘background’ conversation with the reporter, but accept that they can ask for your permission to print any points that are of particular interest, but which will not cause you a problem.
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