The earliest known use of the phrase “off the record” in print, according to Merriam-Webster, appears in a November 15, 1918 story in the New York Tribune by Theodore M. Knappen. World War I had been declared over a few days earlier, and Bernard Baruch, a businessman and adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, gave an interview to reporters.
Knappen wrote, “In an informal conversation with the newspaper men, in which nothing was ‘off the record,’ Mr. Baruch, happy in the victorious termination of the war, largely, as he saw it, through the magnificent spirit of American business in standing by the government at any sacrifice, would scarcely admit that there would be even a temporary period of disarticulation and suspension of business.”
Knappen placed the phrase in quotation marks, “possibly a sign of recent adoption at the time,” says Ammon Shea, an editor at Merriam-Webster. A century later, the term, as well as the practice it describes, is a well-known and well-worn element of journalism. But even after all that time, its collective meaning remains murky. Journalists and members of the general population, which include their potential sources, often have very different definitions for what it means to be “off the record.” The resulting miscommunication can have nasty consequences, and can amplify the chronic debate over sourcing practices, which has reached new heights this week, thanks to a controversial, anonymous op-ed in The New York Times.