In another life I was a governor’s press secretary, during the campaign and then after he took office.

I came to the job directly from a newspaper job. I’d never been a flack before. And I brought with me the same values that reporters, at least 30 years ago, brought to the job of journalism.

My feeling was that you could answer a question three ways: 1) You could lie, 2) you could say “no comment,” and 3) you could answer truthfully. Since I was incapable of the first, I used the other two.

The other set of rules governed the circumstances in which what I said could be reported by people interviewing me. My rules were pretty elaborate. I would explicitly, before answering or telling something to a reporter, say whether it was free to be used with attribution to me; whether it was free to be used as information that must be confirmed by someone else; whether it was for use only as background in their reporting, with no connection to be made to me or the governor’s office; or whether it was never to see the light of day, and was being told only as a friend to a friend.

I would never take a nod or a blank look as assent to my stated rules, but required in advance a verbal promise from the reporter to abide by them. Looking back, I can say not one reporter ever stabbed me in the back by ignoring our agreement.

I was reminded of all this after reading a column at in which the author, a marketing professional, stated categorically, “Never, EVER say ANYTHING you don’t want to see in print. Period. That’s it.”

He went on to say that reporters’ first duty is to inform the public, so they will freely ignore your “off the record” admonitions in order to perform that duty. Maybe that’s the case today, but it never happened to me.

Several reporters responded in comments that the column writer was off base, and that reporters do, and must, respect such rules from sources if they are to maintain a relationship with that source.

I know reporters have a reputation that can’t get much lower, but the marketing professional who wrote the column assumes that reporters will lie to your face, feign agreement on your rules for use, and then turn around and do the opposite.

I never found that to be the case. Some confusion no doubt comes from a lack of specificity on the part of the news source. You can’t just say “this is off the record” and think that covers all bases. And you can’t assume that a smile or a nod from the reporter is assent. Make them say it out loud.

There’s also another motivating factor for playing it straight. In 1991 the Supreme Court ruled that a newspaper loses First Amendment protection from a lawsuit if it reneges on a promise to keep a source confidential.

Jon Ham (@rivlax) is publisher of Carolina Journal and a vice president of the John Locke Foundation.