Q: Can a reporter force a source to go “on the record?”

Credit: Getty Images, Mihajlo Maricic

The short answer is no, but it’s more complicated than that. You’re alluding to the ground rules between a reporter and a source about how information from an interview can be used. The public is often confused about what terms like “on the record” and “off the record” mean, but most news outlets subscribe to The Associated Press definitions below:  

On the record: The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.

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. 

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.

Off the record: The information cannot be used for publication but can be pursued with other sources.

Before reporters even begin an interview, they and the source should agree on how quotes or information will be attributed—the operative word there being before. Once the terms are agreed, a source can’t then say something was off the record. 

Conversely, a reporter who has agreed to an interview on background, deep background or off the record, cannot force the source to go on the record and in fact, must protect the source’s anonymity unless the source releases them from the confidentiality agreement. Most states have shield laws that protect a journalist from being forced to disclose an anonymous source, but there have been a few high profile cases where reporters have been jailed for not revealing a source. 

Generally, all conversations with a reporter should be considered on the record—a ground rule former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci knew or should have known when he called The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza to malign his White House colleagues in a profanity laced tirade. 

The takeaway: it’s always a good idea to go over exactly what these terms mean to avoid any misunderstandings.