In works of fiction, the Intrepid Reporter
character is often faced with sources that are less-than-willing to divulge their information. Unless they are an Anti-Hero
wishing to resort to unconventional tactics
, the character is typically at a loss for options. Until, that is, their source mutters three simple words: "off the record". After that, the journalist is typically given some crucial clue or piece of evidence that they can't outright publish but will typically lead them one step further in their hunt for the big story
The use of this trope is close to Truth in Television
, but fiction works tend to treat these three words as a legally binding contract. In Real Life
, a journalist's code of ethics, and the code of the agency they work for, typically prevents them from revealing "off the record" sources and information, and any journalist that does reveal their confidential sources or information can easily find themselves without a job
. However, those three words don't legally prevent
the journalist from revealing anything, and "off the record" information is still commonly published, especially when the information is especially revealing or damaging
. In addition, a journalist is usually not considered to be under any obligation unless the "off the record" nature of the talk was agreed to beforehand. If someone says too much
and then says "whoops, that was off the record" when he realizes his mistake, a good journalist may reply "I didn't agree to that."
A variant of "Off The Record" is "On Background," where a source and reporter agree in advance that the information may be used provided the source isn't identified. This is why there are stories attributed only to a Senior Government Official or a Senior Official On The Secretary's Plane.
Expect this trope to pop up predominantly in crime dramas
, but may make its appearances any time detectives and/or reporters are involved.
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- In Thank You For Smoking, Nick Naylor thought most of the information he gave a reporter was in confidence. It wasn't.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in the second Live-Action Movie, April O'Neil asks the police chief for information about who or what caused the damage in downtown New York, and then uses this phrase. The attempt was unsuccessful; the police chief refused to divulge any information.
Chief: Miss O'Neil, my record, on-the-record, clearly shows that I have no off-the-record record. Make a record of that.
- At the end of The Life Of David Gale, after the video proving Gale's innocence is revealed to the public, the female protagonist receives a videotape proving that he framed himself and was part of a conspiracy to undermine capital punishment. Naturally, it's marked "Off The Record". Given an earlier conversation with him in which she promises to keep "off the record" statements off the record, it's implied that this video will never reach the public.
- In Patton, George is fond of making controversial claims to large groups of reporters "off the record".
- In Death: Eve Dallas and Nadine Furst use this trope many times. Fortunately, Nadine has a lot of integrity, so it's okay. In fact, Nadine says at one point that she ought to pay Trina a thousand bucks to tattoo the words "Off The Record" on Eve's ass.
- Happens several times in The Millennium Trilogy. The greatest example is when at the end of Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist decides not to publish anything about what he uncovered about the Vanger family.
Live Action TV
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: This trope makes an appearance in almost every episodes, many times more than once
- Veronica Mars: She is the school's reporter, so much of her information comes in the form of this trope
- Supernatural: Sam and Dean sometimes pose as reporters to gather information about possible cases. Off the Record is an easy way for them to get the cop/victim/coroner/etc. to admit something they wouldn't otherwise say for fear of public humiliation -Which, given some of the strange and demented ways the monsters in the Supernatural Verse kill, isn't all that ridiculous.
- The West Wing makes regular use of this trope, normally in the person of White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg.
- The musical I'd Rather Be Right had the song "Off The Record," in which President Roosevelt drops many revealing tidbits about himself and his administration, always being careful to add, "Don't print that — it's strictly off the record." (This number was also featured in the Bio Pic Yankee Doodle Dandy.)
- As explained by Officer George Bruch about 12 minutes into this video, when speaking to a police officer, "Off The Record" is like the Unicorn: it does not exist.
- The mistake exists partly because of a misunderstanding of Miranda Rights: everyone has the right to remain silent, and anything they say can be held against them, whether or not they are under arrest at the time.
- Bottom line: "Off the record" applies only to journalists and those in a similar line of work. Nobody else.