The Tea: On/Off the Record

“The record is obviously very important to all of us. Not just at the Rampage but to journalists everywhere. It’s the symbol of our integrity.”


Story By: Tommy Tribble, Editor-in-Chief

In the era of clickbait and a president who calls the press the “enemy of the people,” it’s more important than ever to understand how and why journalists do the work they do. In this weekly column Tommy Tribble, editor-in-chief of The Rampage, hopes to clear up misconceptions about student journalism.

Alright girls, it’s time to talk about ethics. Boring, right? I know. But we have to talk about it because it’s the only thing that separates the Rampage from Breitbart and the Inquirer.

The word journalism conjures images of intrepid reporters and Watergate and all those fun things, but at the end of the day it’s really a kind of journaling–a recording of history. This is what we call “the record.”

The record is the notes we take, the audio we record, the video we film, the photos we take, the articles we write and, ultimately, the news we curate.

What ends up on the record is up to sources. Sort of. When a reporter has a discussion with a source, and the reporter agrees that the conversation is on the record, that means it’s a conversation that can be used. Anything the source says can be quoted and attributed directly to the source by name and by title.

But this poses a potential problem. If every source thinks we’re constantly recording them they could get cagey about what they tell us. They could fear the reprisals of powerful people and thereby protect those powerful people.

So we have “off the record,” a statement that effectively seals the conversation from public view. The reporter can’t publish anything the source says, or attribute anything the source says.

This is conditional. That’s the “sort of,” I alluded to before. A source might declare that a conversation is off the record, but if the reporter disagrees, then the source should know that the conversation is effectively on the record and the reporter will use whatever they hear.

What’s more, a source cannot retroactively declare a conversation off the record, as Kellyanne Conway famously attempted to do. You know, when she tried to anonymously throw her own husband under the bus.

There are gray areas as well. A conversation that is “not for attribution” can be quoted, but not attributed. A conversation “on background” is similar, so much so that some think it’s the exact same thing. Others argue that background means you can’t quote directly and only paraphrase.

Either way the source is obscured. They’re “a source familiar with the issue.” They’re “a White House staffer.” A title but not a name.

Outside of one-on-one encounters, the premise of on the record is a given. A public speech is already on the record. A video posted to a public website for public consumption is on the record.

The record is obviously very important to all of us. Not just at the Rampage but to journalists everywhere. It’s the symbol of our integrity. The record is something of an honor system–by abiding by it, our sources can trust that off the record is a safe space, and know that on the record comes with possible risks and rewards.   

I’ve had sources tell me a conversation is off the record, but stop me from pausing my recording device. To me, my phone is the record, and by allowing one’s conversation to be recorded it is no longer off the record.

When Anthony Scaramucci (“Who!?” I know, I know, it was a long time ago, but stick with me, Trump had this chief of staff for like ten minutes right after the first one…) called a reporter late in the night, he was shocked to discover that his ranting and raving was on the record for all the world to see.

“I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter. It won’t happen again,” he tweeted. Reporters were quick to clap back with a common rule of thumb. If it’s on the phone it’s on the record unless stated otherwise. He should have known.

The source of these conflicts and dramas is miscommunication: a failure to agree on a common language. In many ways that’s the purpose of this whole series–to create the bridge from the Rampage to our readers, from non-journalism majors to all the others, from student to faculty and from reporter to administrator.

So, on the record, let’s create a shared language. Together.