What does it mean when something is on or off the record? Why do we need a "record" to be on? And what makes something stated "On the record" different from something stated otherwise?

I've been googling this for a bit, and have only found vague-broad answers, so I thought I'd ask.

  • 9
    It's more journalism than politics. Google 'Journalism "Off the record"' - you'll get some answers.
    – userLTK
    Apr 1, 2017 at 6:22
  • kk, m8! thx! :D
    – Tirous
    Apr 1, 2017 at 17:04
  • 2
    It's worth noting that in politics, "On record" could also refer to how a politician voted on a bill.
    – Bobson
    Apr 2, 2017 at 2:07

1 Answer 1


It is not uncommon for politicians and journalists to build personal relationships. These relationships help both sides. The journalists get better access to information and the politicians can expect more positive reporting.

But in order to build such a trust relationship, politicians needs some way to be sure that not everything they let slip during a personal conversation will be the headline the next day. As a shorthand for that, they usually establish some kind of code which signals to a journalist if the politician would like to be quoted on a statement or not. When a politician says "off the record, I think this law our party just proposed is a bad idea", then a journalist quoting the politician on that would be considered a breach of trust. But when the politician says that the previous statement was "on the record", it means "yes, please let the public know that I think this".

Among United States politicians and journalists, there are four different levels of being "on record":

  • "On the Record": Yes, I stand by this statement, and you can quote me on this.
  • "Not for Attribution": Yes, you can quote this, but you must not say it came from me. Write something vague like "a party insider". (That means whenever you read "a insider" or "inside source" in an article, it doesn't mean "the janitor overheard", it means "someone important wants this to get outside, but doesn't want to be associated with it")
  • "On Background": You can write that someone said this, but please paraphrase it in your own words so the statement can not be connected back to me from the choice of words.
  • "Off the Record": Do not tell anyone that anyone said something like this.

In other countries you often have similar codes. In Germany, for example, politicians use the phrases "under one", "under two" and "under three". These phrases refer to a numbered list which is found in §16(1) of the press codex, the ethical guidelines for journalists in Germany.

  • "Under one" = "On the record"
  • "Under two" = "Not for Attribution"
  • "Under three" = "Off the record".
  • The link provided contradicts the answer—Off the record: "The information provided is not for publication. However, the information you provide can be used without attribution to verify its veracity with another source."
    – Khashir
    Aug 31, 2018 at 19:39
  • So are there known cases where journalists violated the code, and what implications does it have for the journalist (besides losing the relationship, and possibly more relationships if the word gets out)?
    – elvis
    Aug 21, 2021 at 21:33
  • 1
    @elvis it isn't a legal code, it is a social code
    – Caleth
    Oct 5, 2021 at 11:17
  • @Caleth obviously, but that doesn't answer my question :)
    – elvis
    Oct 18, 2021 at 4:16
  • @elvis you mentioned the consequences in your comment
    – Caleth
    Oct 18, 2021 at 8:26

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