A colleague recently asked a procedural question:
Should he comply with a source’s request for “off the record.”
He wanted off the record after the interview was over.
It’s a tough judgment call. You must choose between:
- Burning a future source of critical but reliable information
- Preserving the relationship by complying with their request.
In covering Washington and other officials we’ve found:
- Most will tell you almost anything if you cover their butts.
- Many want everything off the record.
Pentagon officials have leaked defense strategies to us.
State Department officials have done it, too.
The only agreement was that they weren’t to be identified.
We once taped a Congressman off the record.
He knew we were taping but felt comfortable “off the record.”
We later played back parts we wanted to publish.
Surprisingly, he agreed. It was a controversial story.
We’ve found that going into such interviews that we agree:
- They ask for “off the record” before they answer our question
- They wait for our consent before they say anything else.
Officials have told us nasty things about other officials.
In retrospect, they realize this could damage their own careers.
When asked not to publish, we did as they asked.
We had already decided against publishing as it was petty.
For that, one told us what went on in “executive sessions” for years.
Our agreement was that we would:
- Never ID him as the source.
- Publish details that would lead back to him.
About 25% of what he told us was interesting enough to publish.
But that 25% led to much other critical information.
We protected another source years later.
He told us of a disgruntled cop’s plot against us.
That was quickly quashed when we talked with the mayor.
You may rarely face choices such as these.
It helps to know you have choices.
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