“This is off the record.”

The 5 scariest words that will send me sprinting to hang up a client’s phone or shoot over the most aggressive “Mom’s MAD” look possible. (Hey, if it can stop a 4-year-old in his tracks, it certainly can give a CEO some cause for pause.)

This rundown in Ragan Communications and PR Daily is a very smart assessment of the rules of the road when it comes to degrees of attribution in the media.

As Allison Carter rightly states when it comes to off the record, on the record or on background, “the terms are commonplace for PR professionals but are often used incorrectly. And that can be very dangerous.”

That’s why in our world we advise our clients to assume that “off the record” doesn’t exist.


Most people don’t understand how to navigate attribution — including some less experienced journalists (or bloggers with cell phone cameras). You’ve got “off the record,” of course, but there’s also “on background” or “on deep background.”

So if you don’t understand the terms of engagement, you’re already in trouble.

Then there’s the reporters’ side of it.

Most journalists, because they’ve got a lot of pressure on them to meet deadlines and get clicks, have to write more stories, find more scoops and post on more platforms.

So offering something “off the record” is taking a big risk because you’re asking the journalist to forego some news, and there’s always the risk that something you think you said off the record actually winds up being used in a story, whether due to miscommunication or worse.

It’s rare I’ve come across a journalist who I might be concerned would violate these closely-held principles, but it’s never out of the question.

That’s why for our clients, the golden rule is: If you don’t want to see it on the front page of the New York Times, don’t say it at all.

This article was written by President Natalie Bauer Luce. Natalie is a seasoned communications and public affairs strategist with extensive experience in government, law, media, politics and business.