Oftentimes a source will say, “This is off the record.” I’m going to argue here for saying, “No.”
First, though, you have to figure out what she means. She might be saying, “You can use what I’m about to tell you, but you can’t say you got it from me,” or she might be saying,” “I’m going to tell you something now, but you can’t use it.” Neither is acceptable, and, even more important, neither is a necessary constraint under which to put yourself.
Say you ask, and what the person means is the first: You can use the material, but can’t attribute it. It’s worth pushing back. People have been known to say some pretty scurrilous things about other people when they know they won’t be held accountable. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. I will frequently hold up my palm and say, “No, please don’t say it. You wouldn’t want me using something about you that another person wasn’t willing to own, so I’d rather you not do it, either.” That can make you look quite high-and-mighty, a paragon of virtue. I’ve also had success saying, “No, I’d rather you not say it at all. If you’re not willing to attach your name to it, I frankly don’t trust it.” Some soures find that irritating, and even insulting, which is fine. Getting them a little angry, a little belligerant, is often a way to get them to talk more.
Even more unacceptable is when someone offers to tell you something but says you can’t use it at all. This is pretty clear-cut. Journalists have no business knowing things they’re not telling their readers. (See Pigs, Bay of) I will always stop the source and say, “No, I’d rather you not tell me at all.” I then go on to say this: “Reporters can never keep straight what is on or off the record. Or I might learn whatever it is you’re about to tell me from somebody else, who won’t mind my using it. You’ll see it in my article and think I’ve betrayed you. It’s better you not tell me anything you don’t want my readers to know.” That almost always rocks the source back. A reporter who doesn’t want to know something? Especially something juicy? A reporter who doesn’t want to be invited into the secretive club of the witting? Unheard of.
Here’s the little secret they taught me at The Wall Street Journal: Whenever someone offers to tell you something “off the record,” they really want to tell you. So if you decline their conditions — can’t attribute it, can’t use it — they’re going to end up telling you anyway. They can’t resist. So it’s best to refuse the conditions and just be patient for a few minutes.
This has obvious limitations. There are cases where off-the-record sourcing is essential. (See Bernstein, Woodward and) But off-the-record sourcing is used way too much. The great Woodward has made a career of it, to the point where it’s hard to tell where his role as a reporter ends and his role as a mouthpiece begins. It’s easy to use off-the-record sourcing, so it has become the refuge of the lazy. At The Wall Street Journal in the early eighties, if we wanted to use an off-the-record comment we had to make the case to a superior and get explicit case-by-case permission. Next time you’re tempted to use an off-the-record comment, pretend you’re justifying it to a granite-faced editor at the Journal.