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".