Off the record — or is it?

QUESTION: You conduct a lengthy interview with a critical source. He tells you many things very useful to a big story you’re working on. At the end of the interview, the source says, “This is all off the record, right? You can’t print any of this.” What do you do? How do you convince the person to go on the record?

The classic rule for “on” or “off” the record is that such arrangements should be made at the outset of an interview, to avoid situations like the one described in the question. The corollary to the rule is that a source is not allowed to take an interview off the record at the end of a conversation, without the reporter’s permission. Invariably, however, sources will often agree to speak on the record and then as you drill deeper into a subject, suggest that some or all of what they said was “off the record.”

The reporter’s response depends very much on the type of source and the relationship the journalist has with that source. If this is a key and important person in a story (a chief of police, a premier or head of a large company) then it is imperative to hold hard and fast to the rules of engagement. Most sources familiar with media interviews know they have to declare something off the record before they try to go there. And most of these people understand that even if it’s not to be attributed to them, you are free to use the information if you can get other corroboration. In the one or two instances where this happened, I negotiated what I needed on the record, and agreed to try and find other sources to confirm details my source didn’t want to go on the record. A lot of times, if I have someone who is a very key source on a difficult story, I agree to do the entire interview off the record and then negotiate stuff on the record out of the body of the main interview. That works very well once the source agrees they are going to say SOMETHING on the record.

The bottom line is that it’s about managing a source. If this is a source you need to cultivate for future use, it’s likely you’ll give them more wiggle room on what is on and off the record. However, I think it’s imperative that if you start an on-the-record conversation with a source or subject who says something important, outrageous or controversial, and then tries to take it back, you have to hold firm and explain to them “on” means on. You convince them by underlying the importance of your role in finding the truth of a matter, and that you cannot ignore something said on the record. You do that realizing your relationship with that particular source may be corrupted, but the principle here is very important.

Dan Lett is a senior reporter and columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press. He specializes in investigative projects and has travelled extensively to report on international affairs. In 2003, he won a National Newspaper Award in the investigations category.