Journo Jargon: "On the Record" vs. "Off the Record" vs. "On Background"

In the February 2019 Writer’s Digest, Roger Morris asks award-winning reporters how they convince sources to reveal explosive information. To add context to that piece, here he breaks down the difference between “on the record,” “off the record” and “on background” in this glossary refresher.
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In the February 2019 Writer’s Digest, Roger Morris asks award-winning reporters how they convince sources to reveal explosive information. To add context to that piece, here he breaks down the difference between “on the record,” “off the record” and “on background” in this glossary refresher.

A writer and a source should be in agreement about the information given and how it will be used. That means agreeing on terms, such as these:

  • “On the record” means that the information given, as well as the source’s name and identification, can be published with no restrictions, including direct quotes.
  • “Off the record” means that neither the information nor the source can be published; however, the information may help direct the writer to someone who is willing to go on the record or on background.
  • “On background” means that certain information may be used so long as it doesn’t serve to identify the source, so usually the reporter and the source agree in advance as to what can be used.
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