Learning the Hard Way That There is No Such Thing as “Off the Record”

“Brooklyn hippster [sic] Lana Del Rey had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night — booked on the strength of her TWO SONG web EP, the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history…”


Nick Denton, head of the popular gossip website Gawker, received an email on January 15 containing the above critique of Saturday Night Live’s booking of Ms. Del Rey. Normally this sort of reader feedback might be noted by the site’s editors and simply deleted.

In this case, the result was far different.  The email was posted prominently on Gawker’s home page for its hundreds of thousands of readers to see. Why? Perhaps it was because the email’s author was none other than NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, one of the most recognizable personalities on the same network that airs SNL.

According to the Washington Post, Denton shared the email with Gawker’s editor, A.J. Daulerio, purely for the purpose of providing a heads-up about the opinions of “influential readers.” Daulerio turned around and posted it to the site in the spirit of “radical transparency.”

As you can imagine, NBC’s PR team moved quickly in asking Gawker to take down the post.  As you might also imagine, Gawker just as quickly declined. Why? Because there is no such thing as off the record.

In the aftermath, I asked a number of journalists and PR professionals how they define “off the record.” Not surprisingly, they all had different answers. My favorite came from writer Lance Thompson, who said, “’Off the record’ is like a dead microphone. The situation could conceivably exist, but never when you’re speaking.” Or writing, in Brian Williams’ case.

Because the definition of “off the record” is at least unclear, certainly misunderstood and definitely not legally enforceable, why not adhere to a far simpler concept?  If you can’t say it for attribution, then probably you shouldn’t say it at all.  Otherwise, anything that is said in the company of a journalist is fair game. Full stop.  If you don’t want to see it in print, on the web or on television, bite your lip. It’s painful, but far less so than the  painful lesson one journalist learned the hard way.

What do you think? Was Brian Williams right to expect an email between friends would remain private? Was Gawker right to publish it?

1 comment to Learning the Hard Way That There is No Such Thing as “Off the Record”

  • Jeff

    This is a perfect example of exactly what you outlined above. If you don’t want to see it in print or on air, don’t say it. “Off the record” isn’t enforceable and Brian Williams should have known better. This is the kind of stuff Gawker lives off of. Nothing is private for them and nothing is safe from publication if it pushes page views for the media group’s advertisers. Unfortunate situation, yes, but one that could have been easily avoided.