Evan Vucci / AP

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.

The latest illustration of this disconnect comes in the form of an email exchange between Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, and Ryan Mac, a BuzzFeed reporter. Earlier this summer, BuzzFeed, along with many other media organizations, covered a head-scratching spectacle that involved Musk, a British diver, and a team of young soccer players trapped in a cave in Thailand. The diver, Vern Unsworth, had made fun of Musk’s attempts to aid in rescue efforts of the soccer team, via a small submarine his engineers built and flew to the site. Musk responded by calling Unsworth a “pedo guy” on Twitter, but apologized soon after.

Last week, Musk seemed to backtrack on his remorse, suggesting it was “strange” that Unsworth hadn’t sued him yet. But Unsworth’s lawyer had reportedly warned Musk that a libel lawsuit was imminent, so Mac emailed Musk for comment. “Off the record,” Musk wrote in an email. “I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists.”

BuzzFeed prepared to publish the message in full. When Musk realized this would happen, he sent this to Mac:

Off the record

We haven’t had a conversation at all. I sent you an off the record email, which very clearly and unambiguously said “off the record.” If you want to publish off-the-record comments and destroy your journalistic credibility, that’s up to you.

As for answering more questions, I would be happy to do so, but not with someone who just told me that they will not honor accepted rules of journalism.

I can see how, on the surface, and if a reader is not familiar with the minutiae of journalistic ethics—guidelines that reporters themselves frequently revisit to better execute their trade—this exchange looks like a reporter willfully violating one of the most important tenets of journalism. When sources tell reporters they want something “off the record,” there’s little ambiguity in the statement. Don’t print that.

But the way Musk uses it here—the way many people who communicate with reporters do, particularly in politics—suggests he believes that “off the record” is something akin to a protective talisman, one that, when invoked, both commands the reporter and protects the source.

And that’s not how it works.

“Every discussion with a reporter is in some sense a prearranged agreement, whether on the record, on background, or off the record,” explains Adam L. Penenberg, a professor in New York University’s journalism program. “On the record” means anything the source says can be published; “on background” means the information can be published without giving away the source’s name; and “off the record” means the reporter can’t print what the source told them (they can, however, try to verify or corroborate that information with a different source).

In every case, the reporter and the source must come to an agreement about how the information will be used. In other words, Musk prefacing his comments with “off the record” doesn’t trigger a binding contract. As Mac said in one of his emails to Musk, “I didn’t agree for the conversation to be off the record, but appreciate the response.”

That’s the bare definition. In practice, there’s more nuance. Mac could have conceded to Musk’s wishes, if he and his editors decided that the contents of the emails—an apparent reversal of Musk’s earlier public remarks about Unsworth—weren’t newsworthy. But they did, and they had every right to do so. “I think people that understand how this works and how ‘off the record’ works understand how important this story is and why we published this story, and that we did everything in the right,” Mac told me over the phone.

Another publication may have determined the emails weren’t worth publishing. BuzzFeed’s judgment was certainly in the letter of journalistic law. Whether it was in the spirit of it is a different question with multiple answers, and good fodder for discussion of general editorial decision-making.

There are some cases in which reporters don’t have much choice about the terms. A presidential campaign may invite reporters on the trail for a conversation with the candidate and stipulate beforehand that the whole thing will be off the record. Reporters must decide whether to accept the conditions and attend, or miss out. Compared to reporter-source relationships, their hands are tied when it comes to negotiating. But the premise of “off the record” remains: An agreement is made.

Perhaps part of the confusion for some sources stems from where these agreements are being made, or not made, in the first place. When reporters engage in shoe-leather journalism—actually talking to people, with their voices—perhaps the risk of confusion is lower. Bob Woodward is still walking around and knocking on sources’ doors, but many reporters do their work through email, texts, LinkedIn messages, Twitter DMs, Snapchat—the list goes on. These settings have only recently become fair game for traditional reporting, but they remain rooted in their earlier, casual uses. These channels may seem more friendly, less confrontational, which can exacerbate the ambiguity over the meaning of “off the record.”

The fundamental rules of off-the-record scenarios are, for journalists, unimpeachable standards. Yet for news consumers, they can be confusing. The replies to Mac’s tweet about Musk’s critique of “journalistic credibility” offers a small snapshot into the murkiness of the phrase’s meaning among the general population. “Any reasonable person would agree this was off the record,” one user said, to which another responded, “Reasonable people should understand how ‘off the record’ actually works before trying to invoke it.”

Reporters should always be forthright about the terms surrounding information supplied by their sources, and especially if those sources aren’t experienced press secretaries on Capitol Hill, for example. It’s poor form to publish something from a source who says “off the record,” but doesn’t fully grasp the implications of speaking to the press; not only would you be taking advantage of someone’s naiveté, you’d be missing an opportunity to convey information in the name of media literacy. “When dealing with individuals who are not experienced in talking with reporters, journalists should make sure ground rules and potential consequences are clear, and then perhaps offer leeway,” Penenberg, the journalism professor, instructs.

Musk, however, is not a novice in the media world. It is difficult to imagine that in the many years that Musk has been a CEO of several companies, he has not had some dose of the requisite media training for people in such a role. He is known to be obsessed with media coverage of his companies. He even ran a business in the late 1990s that sold software to newspapers under the slogan “We Power the Press.” It’s unclear whether Musk actually doesn’t understand how off-the-record situations work, or if he’s just trying to knock a reporter he doesn’t like.

Whatever the reason, Musk’s reaction is dangerous, particularly in an age of media distrust, in which the president of the United States and his supporters regularly refer to reporters as enemies of the people. An age in which, according to a survey from Gallup and the Knight Foundation, Americans believe that 44 percent of the news they see on television, read in newspapers, or hear on the radio is inaccurate, and 64 percent of the news they encounter on social media—where most people are increasingly getting their news. Musk seized on this turmoil in May, in spectacular fashion, when he suggested creating a website that would rate “the core truth” of articles and track “the credibility score” of journalists, and which could be named Pravda, the mouthpiece newspaper of the Soviet Union’s communist party.

When people in power, from Musk to the president, misconstrue journalistic practices, unintentionally or willfully, and then portray reporters as dishonorable for committing pretend sins, they further warp the public perception of the role of the press in a free society. “If you want to publish off-the-record comments and destroy your journalistic credibility, that’s up to you,” Musk had said, and his fans and others may very well believe that’s what has happened.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.