On the Record About Off the Record

Donald Trump discussing his conversation with the New York Times on Fox News on Thursday, March 3, 2015.

Donald Trump discussing his conversation with the New York Times on Fox News on Thursday, March 3, 2015.

Tonight’s Fox News Republican presidential debate featured a discussion about off-the-record conversations.


While the concept seems straight-forward, allowing sources to go off the record should be a complex process.

In essence, off-the-record conversations allow a source to safely provide information without fear of retribution.

There is no set definition of “off the record,” however. Before granting that protection, journalists should discuss with their source what that term means. Can the journalist use the information without attribution? Is the journalist ever allowed to use that information? Can the person be an anonymous source? The discussion over the term’s definition is essential.

Whatever the journalist and source decides, the journalist should keep the promises they make, though.

In this case, the discussion at the Republican debate centered on a meeting Donald Trump had January 5 with the editorial board of the New York Times. A BuzzFeed story alleges Trump questioned whether he would stand by his views on immigration.

In a response to Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, the editorial page editor explained the meeting’s purpose:

He told me that the editorial board’s meetings with presidential candidates are often done on an off-the-record basis, at the candidates’ request. These meetings with candidates are not for the purpose of writing news articles, he emphasized, but are intended as informational sessions for the board so that board members can make observations, challenge the candidate on his or her positions, and eventually consider an endorsement.

The process is common for newspapers that endorse political candidates. However, Sullivan writes that the editorial board meeting with Trump was unusual for two reasons. Specifically, the paper’s executive editor attended the meeting and part of the conversation was on the record for news coverage.

Regardless of how the editorial meeting with Trump was different from other meetings, one legitimate concern is that off-the-record information appears to have leaked out from the discussion. This is something the New York Times should investigate.

However, there are no reasons Trump can’t ask the New York Times to release the audio of his conversation with its editorial board. As I said above, off-the-record conversations are to protect sources – not journalists. Of course, it would be up to the New York Times to release the audio.

The best solution is for journalists to push for as many discussions as possible – especially those with policymakers and political candidates – to be on the record.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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