If You Go Off The Record, Don’t Die.

Last week, Apple announced that CEO Steve Jobs, a pancreatic cancer survivor and liver transplant recipient, is taking his third medical leave in seven years.

Upon hearing that news, Fortune Magazine’s Doron Levin reported something new – that Mr. Jobs had secretly gone to Switzerland in 2009 to seek an unusual treatment for neuroendocrine cancer.

There’s a good reason Mr. Levin sat on that news until finally releasing it last week: His source had told it to him off-the-record.

Steve Jobs

Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Photo Courtesy Matthew Yohe, Wikimedia Commons

It turns out Mr. Levin’s source was Jerry York, an Apple director who died in March 2010. According to Mr. Levin:

“Under our agreement at the time, York wanted the facts of Jobs’s treatment in Switzerland to remain out of the news. He didn’t say whether the board knew of it. (With York’s death, the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place.)”

I haven’t seen evidence that Mr. York ever agreed for that information to be released upon his death. But it’s out there anyway, and it’s not the first time that death ended an off-the-record agreement:

In 2007, reporter Robert Novak revealed that former Senator Tom Eagleton (D-MO) was his source that labeled George McGovern, 1972’s Democratic nominee, the candidate of “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid.” It was a major story at the time, since one high-profile Democrat was attacking his own party’s nominee. After Eagleton died in 2007, Novak named him as his source.

Woodward and Bernstein famously agreed not to release the name of Watergate’s “Deep Throat” until after his death. Unlike Mr. York, Mr. Felt agreed to have his identity revealed after his death. Mr. Felt ultimately revealed himself in 2005.

Mark Felt

Mark Felt, a.k.a. “Deep Throat”

Journalists don’t agree whether death should end an off-the-record agreement – and while many argue it shouldn’t, others are eager to release a previously unreported nugget.

What’s clear is that it’s yet another detail that has to be agreed upon between reporters and sources before any off-the-record information is exchanged.


Related: Why Going Off The Record Is a Dumb Idea
Related: Should You Protect Yourself by Taping Your Raw Media Interviews?