The Atlantic

Elon Musk and the Meaning of ‘Off the Record’

The entrepreneur’s reaction to recent media coverage illustrates a common—and dangerous—misconception of reporting practices.
Source: 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, in .

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