The term “Off the Record” has to be traced to Latin, where the word recordari means to preserve a note, or to recollect. But from there we have to go to the modern practice of journalism, where the complete term means to gain information from someone with a promise that it won’t be published. For many, many decades that was a sacred trust between public persons and journalists. One could reveal something that was not public and not intended to be public at the time. The journalist’s promise to keep it off the record was inviolate, under a “seal” of professional courtesy.
One need only go back to the Watergate era, when President Nixon was being investigated for conspiracy to undermine the Democratic Party by gathering information using methods that were illegal. The two journalists investigating this mess were Bernstein and Woodward of the Washington Post. They gained insider information from an unknown source referred to as “Deep Throat.” His identity was off the record for many years, only recently divulged by himself. Much of the information he shared with the journalists was, itself, considered off the record by those being quoted, but Deep Throat chose to divulge it in the interest of national security.
It was in that same era of the Nixon presidency that The Pentagon Papers, which revealed “secret” government information regarding the Vietnam War was leaked to the press by a government official, Daniel Ellsburg. He, too, acted by quoting the need for transparency for the sake of national security. It was his contention (commonly accepted by the American public) that the decisions regarding the US involvement in Vietnam were not in the best interests of the American people. Highly confidential papers were reported in the news, shocking the American people.
These two incidents (Watergate and Pentagon Papers) set the tone for a new understanding of the relationship between the press and government officials. Off the Record took on a new meaning, and some of us have come to the conclusion that the meaning is that there is no such thing.
When coupled with the advent of electronic media, the relationship between secrecy and public disclosure became, at best, foggy. The meaning of journalism expanded from professionals trained and experienced in creating accurate and competent reports of news to include anyone with a cell phone or a computer. Anyone can call themselves a “reporter” by simply going online. Much of what is published on social media sites is inaccurate and sometimes intentionally misleading. One result is that professional media have bought into the pressure of instant news and rush to publish without its traditional patience providing for time to check authenticity and report responsibly. The print media has faced decline in its revenues and, as a result, has reduced staff, easily dismissing editors, who were the wall between responsible reporting and error. The public has come to dismiss the authenticity of news reports (print media, radio, TV, and internet.) Wild speculation reigns in matters of great importance to the American people.
In the midst of this the concept of off the record is laughable, resulting in public officials embracing secrecy instead of transparency. We live in a time in which we are witnessing the demise of truth. That may be a more serious issue than all of the internal and international conflicts we face.
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