In the movies, reporters always are talking to people "off the record" to get valuable information pertaining to a crime or mystery.
Sources often want to hide behind an anonymous veil to convey tidbits they might not be willing or authorized to say publicly.
That's when they ask if they can talk, off the record, meaning what they say won't be attributed to them.
In some cases, this may be the only way to obtain information. In other cases, it can serve as valuable background in a complicated story.
Usually this is the point where the reporter turns off the tape recorder or TV camera, or puts down his pen and pad, as if that makes it officially "off the record."
Either way, that's when the audience leans in and thinks they're going to get some really juicy information. But in real life, it's seldom that important and usually not that juicy.
Hard to 'unknow'
My rule of thumb is to keep journalism simple. Here's the way I learned to handle such requests.
During the course of an interview, if someone asks if they can talk "off the record," I leave my tape recorder running, pen poised and simply say, "If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not."
The reason, I explain, is that as soon as you agree to start receiving categorized information, the water gets pretty muddy.
For one thing, it's hard to know when you're "back on the record," and what they are saying is quotable or attributable.
It's also hard to "unknow" something.
It's like when the judge in a trial instructs the jury to disregard the testimony of a witness who just confessed to the crime because of some legal technicality.
Once you know something, you know it, and it's hard to unscramble that egg when you begin deliberating in the jury room or sit down to write your story.
Cross my heart
To be honest, going "off the record" is more Hollywood than reality. Real reporters need real facts, not he-said-she-said gossip that may or may not be true.
It's a slippery slope.
It's like saying, "Cross my heart and hope to die." Or, "Don't tell a soul, I really mean it."
Truth is, people love to blame the media and say they were misquoted when in most cases they were not. They just wish they hadn't said what they said in big, bold type.
It's a lot easier and neater if you conduct business on the record and avoid any misconceptions about secrets told in or out of school.
Experience has taught me that whatever the information is, the person you're interviewing is probably dying to tell somebody.
And if you just wait long enough, they're going to tell you sooner or later -- on the record, of course.