We often enjoy the Lunch with the FT feature in the Financial Times Weekend Edition and was Saturday’s was particularly entertaining. Edward Luce, the paper’s Washington commentator was lunching with Anthony Scaramucci, aka “The Mooch,” Donald Trump’s former communications director.
It was bound to be a lively affair – especially since it took place in a restaurant owned by “The Mooch,” himself. The main headline from this encounter was Scaramucci’s description of his erstwhile colleague Steve Bannon as “a racist,” a man with “a screw loose.” Great story – punchy, controversial and continuing the theme that the Trump White House is peopled by loud mouthed eccentrics who fight like rats in a sack.
However, there was another aspect of the interview that interested me as a journalist and media trainer. “Scaramucci has a light-hearted politically incorrect exchange about the fact that his partner is Jewish and he is Italian, which he requests be off the record,” reports Luce. I have to say – I was quite shocked.
What does off the record mean?
“What does off the record mean?” is something that we’re frequently asked in our media training courses. I had this very same conversation last week with a group from a big law firm. I explained to them, as I always do, what it means to me. Interestingly Edward Luce, my colleague on the Financial Times (I’m a freelance) whose pieces I always read and whose new book I really enjoyed, takes a different view to mine. I would never quote something from someone if they asked it to be “off the record.”
The FT piece also includes a reference to an interview that Scaramucci did with a writer on The New Yorker magazine in which he was very rude and sweary about the President. “I incorrectly thought my family’s tie to him [the writer, Ryan Lizza] and the Italian-American community would mean our conversation was off the record. I make a mistake, which cost me my job,” says Scaramucci.
How do journalists use off the record information?
The other week one of our journalist/media trainers (we only use working journalists) was writing a finance story and needed to get some information from one of the main financial regulators. A press officer who our trainer knows well was reluctant to do a formal interview and be quoted because they didn’t want to make a big story of this issue. So, instead, the two agreed that they would speak off the record and our journalist would attribute to what they said as “a source at” at this particular financial regulator.
Before that piece, our journalist/media trainer had done a story about a takeover deal. In this case, one of the parties involved wanted to me to know something that, they felt would improve the reporting of the discussions between the two parties. It was agreed that this would be “on background.” Again, the journalist didn’t quote them, they simply stated the point they made as fact.
The Financial Times regularly uses the phrase “people close to the deal said that…” before quoting an off-the-record comment. You’ll probably also read phrases such as “one insider,” “friends of” or “one commentator.” Very often the description will be agreed between the interviewee and the journalist.
Actually, we did I just say that journalists would never quote something from someone if they asked it to be “off the record”? OK, we lied. Well, slightly anyway. The truth is that if the story is big enough almost every journalist will “burn,” their sources, in other words, they will not respect the off the record arrangement.
Should you go off the record when speaking to a journalist?
So, when we’re doing media training courses, we always explain that press officers and communications people might have journalists with whom they work closely and are therefore willing to speak off record. For anybody else, it’s always better to assume that everything you say to the journalist can be quoted and attributed to you. That includes that little throwaway line as the camera operator is “de-rigging” or that bit of small talk with the reporter as you walk to the reception desk together.
“Off the record” has its advantages as we tell people in our media coaching courses but it should be used with extreme caution – as “The Mooch” can testify.