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. There's also "Deep Background" and "Not For Attribution" - but all of these terms except for "On The Record" are not universally agreed on among news outlets, or even necessarily among reporters for the same outlet. As a general guide, the following definitions are from the AP news agency:
- On The Record: "The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name."
- Off The Record: "The information cannot be used for publication."
- Background: "The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. AP reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record. These background briefings have become routine in many venues, especially with government officials."
- Deep Background: "The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity."
AP does not define "Not For Attribution", but that might typically be taken to mean, "Quote me exactly, but don't identify who said it."
Expect this trope to pop up predominantly in crime dramas, but may make its appearances any time detectives and/or reporters are involved.
- In All the President's Men, Ben Bradlee gets pretty wound up about the fact that everyone Woodward and Bernstein have interviewed is always on Deep Background or Off-The-Record: "Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story? You guys are about to write a story that says the former Attorney General, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook! Just be sure you're right."
- In Thank You for Smoking, Nick Naylor thought most of the information he gave a reporter was in confidence. It wasn't.
- In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, 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 Zig Zag (2002), Detective Hawke interviews fifteen-year-old ZigZag off the record because he doesn't have either permission from a parent or verification that he's eighteen. Later, Hawke tells ZigZag "strictly off the record" that if he puts his face next to the two-way mirror that Mr. Walters uses to spy on his employees, he can look into Walters' office.
- In Death: Eve Dallas and Nadine Furst use this trope many times. It is a testament to Nadine's integrity that she always adheres to her agreements with Eve and is willing to hold onto sensitive information until Eve gives her the go-ahead to take it public - and it's because Eve knows that she can trust Nadine to do this that she bothers to work with Nadine at all, when normally she has little but scorn for the media. Nadine says at one point that she ought to pay professional stylist 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.
- In Arthur Hailey's Overload, a reporter on a bus with the others covering the opening of a power plant asks if there's any booze at the meal the electric company is providing. The public relations flack on the bus asks all the reporters if that item will be off the record, and they all agree. Basically, if the electric company can afford to give reporters free booze, it might look (to the public) like they are spendthrifts when it comes time to ask for a rate increase, so they have to ask the reporters to keep that point about the availability of booze to themselves.
- A beautiful example in Trail of Glory.
Bryant: I was sure deploying militia outside the U.S. was illegal in peacetime?
Shreve: That ain't no militia! Jes' Crittenden's boys!
Bryant: Freebooters, then. Can I quote you to that effect?
Shreve: You sure as Sam Hill can't! If they find out, my life ain't worth spit!
Bryant: Even better! "A knowledgeable local source, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from the butcher Crittenden and his band of renegades, who would stoop to anything to conceal their depredations...."
- The Golden Hamster Saga: In Freddy to the Rescue, an automobile factory is scheduled to be built in a wheat field inhabited by endangered field hamsters. The mayor claims there are no hamsters in the field, but when Mr. John and Linda go to interview him, he admits off the record that he's willing to kill a few dozen hamsters in order to create hundreds of jobs.
- Spenser occasionally ends up asking reporters for information about a case he's working on (or they ask him); "this is background, ok?" will sometimes be brought up, especially if Spenser doesn't want immediate word to get back to the person or group he's asking questions about.
- CSI: 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.
- Yes, Minister. After being doorstopped by journalists on the way to Number 10, Bernard tries this after he's already answered their questions, and is smugly told it doesn't work after the event. Hacker tells Bernard off and lists several better ways of fobbing off the Press.
- Torchwood: Children of Earth. The British government is trying to conceal from the rest of the world that they've had prior dealings with 456, so use this quote when asking to speak to the alien privately despite an agreement not to do so without foreign delegates present. This becomes an Ironic Echo when 456 reveals why it wants the children. It then plays a recording of the "off the record" discussion to the rest of the delegates.
- Not criminal related, but in Gilmore Girls, Lorelai runs into trouble with a misunderstanding of "off the record" etiquette. When she gets interviewed about her inn for a travel magazine, she spends most of the interview at ease with the reporter lightheartedly complaining about her mother. When she talks to Rory (who's in school for journalism) after the fact, Rory's mortified because she didn't use the magic words, but Lorelai assures her that none of her jokes will be in the article because they aren't relevant to the topic. Rory convinces her to follow up with the reporter, who reveals that she did in fact (for some reason) work the jokes into the article. Since it's too late to rewrite, Lorelai tells her to pull the article. She doesn't, and Lorelai has to deal with the fallout.
- 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.)
- In Central Park, Season 1 "Hat Luncheon", when Paige questions Councilman Leon in the steam room on why he voted against renewing the Park League's contract, he told her the mayor told him to do it and that's off the record. Paige tells him he can't do that, but a lawyer who overheard their conversion points out he's allow to do that and argues that the source was in an altered state because of the steam room.
- Godzilla: The Series, the episode S.C.A.L.E. is done in documentary style where the the title terrorists have their actions filmed. Near the end of the episode, Alexandra Springer, the leader begged Audrey Timmonds to tell the world her world, claiming "The World has a right to know. However, in the end Audrey decided not to tell the story and chooses to instead throw the Tape in the fire, saying there are some stories that are best left untold, as she and Nick watch the tape burn and melt in the fire.
- Lois Lane seemed to ask for "off-the-record" quite a lot in Superman: The Animated Series.
- 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.
- Lawyers in depositions may ask the stenographer at some point to go "off the record", which in this case means "to stop typing down everything that's being said in the back and forth between the parties at the table." Typically, it's seen as a dirty tactic to bury things that one side doesn't want to have come back to bite them at a later deposition or in court.