The term “off the record” is commonly interpreted as information provided to a reporter that can’t be used or attributed to the source. If you make an off the record comment, you are asking a reporter to keep a secret.
That’s a pretty frustrating position to put a reporter in as you’re saying “Here is some juicy information for you but you can’t use it in your story.” Since reporters are trained to use the most interesting information in their news stories, you are taking a risk. Even if you know the reporter well and trust him or her, there is a chance that the information will get out in some shape or form.
Another problem with the term is that there isn’t firm agreement among reporters about what the term means. One reporter might interpret “off the record” as information that can’t be used at all while another might think that the information could be used if another source, who doesn’t mind being quoted, makes the same information available.
If you say something “off the record” and then the reporter uses the quote, you don’t have any recourse. No legal action can be taken against the reporter. It is not like lawyer-client or doctor-patient privilege. Judges can force reporters to reveal their sources under threat of imprisonment.
Bottom line – don’t go off the record. Just. Don’t. Do. It. Whatever you say to a reporter is fair game for them to use. If you want to provide background information, be prepared to stand behind what you say. It keeps the rules of conversation with a reporter clear, and there is no misunderstanding about what can be used or not. Say what you’re prepared to see in the news the next day and leave it at that.