Nothing is off-the-record. Even when it is.
For the record, there is no such thing as “off the record”. It’s something that any journalist will tell you. If you tell them, there’s a chance they’ll publish it. There is one golden rule for anybody talking with the press – if you don’t want it to be published or broadcast then don’t say it! It’ that simple.
When you tell a journalist something “off the record” you need to have established that the conversation is not publication. This assumes that the reporter will oblige. Tacking on the phrase after you’ve told somebody something – or adding as a prefix to the sentence isn’t how it works.
If you want parts of their conversation to be unpublished you need to have first established that this is acceptable with a journalist and then make it clear which pieces of the conversation are on and off the record.
But, and here’s the important part, if you tell a journalist something – whether or not they have agreed to the interview (or parts of it) being ‘off the record’ you’re relying on their word. There is no formal code of conduct.
It’s about your personal relationship with them rather than an established principle. If they decide at a later date that something you said is actually quite an interesting story – as is the case in Trump’s case – then they can, and will, use it.
Another misconception is that journalists have complete editorial control over the stories that are published in their byline. Once a story is written however, it’s often passed to sub-editors, section editors , Managing Editors and the Editor-in-Chief. They ask for clarification or evidence to be added to support statements made in a story. If the information has been provided ‘off the record’, even though a journalist may want to keep their promise, their bosses may not be quite as keen to do so.
Telling a journalist anything ‘off the record’ is ALWAYS a risky strategy, which I wouldn’t ever advocate. While it might work 99 times out of 100 when it goes wrong it tends to go SERIOUSLY wrong. It all depends on the strength of your relationship with the journalist and whether you trust them to keep their word.