Reporters who call the Consumer Product Safety Commission these days had better take careful notes, for the official on the other end may be taping the call.

In a memo to top staff members, CPSC Executive Director Eric C. Peterson says all news media inquiries must be referred to the public affairs office and "future staff interviews should be recorded on audio tape. Tapes should be retained in originating offices and made available if it is necessary to document discrepancies in resulting news stories."

The public affairs office "will make portable cassette recorders available on a loan basis to offices for this purpose," the memo added.

Some agency staff members scoffed at the memo, which was disclosed by Product Safety Letter, a Washington-based weekly. "This does seem like some form of paranoia," one official said. "These people are in over their heads. Instead of working with the career people, they're trying to muzzle them."

Peterson, in a telephone interview he said he was not recording, called the taping policy "a matter of having a record for the record of what the content of the interview was." He said it would help staff members in "getting the agency's agenda expressed more clearly."

Although the memo didn't mention it, Peterson said reporters would be informed before any conversation is taped. Such "consensual" taping is legal if both parties are aware of it.

Peterson said he had discussed the policy informally with commission Chairman Jacqueline Jones-Smith, who was appointed by President Bush last year, and other commissioners, although he had yet to seek formal approval of "an implementation memorandum."

But Commissioner Anne M. Graham said the policy was news to her.

"I don't support this memo," she said. "No one spoke to me about approving it and I don't approve it. It certainly does not apply to me. I'm not in the habit of tape-recording my conversations with the media or anyone else for that matter."

Graham said the policy could hurt the commission because "any measure that is taken that would adversely affect getting our message out is going to impact negatively on the consumer."

Product Safety Letter said many commission employees are "grumbling about {Peterson's} attempt to change a 17-year agency approach that allowed easy media access to information and candid exchanges between reporters and staffers."

But Peterson, who began his job four months ago, said the policy "is not intended as an inhibitor of conversation between staff and reporters or as a means of gagging anybody. It's a management tool to ensure that when the agency speaks publicly, we speak with one voice and the right hand knows what the left hand is doing."

Daniel Rumelt, acting public affairs director, said that Peterson "wants to be more in the loop" and that "there have been instances where we've questioned where some quotes came from."

Peterson said the impetus for the new policy was a New York Times story in October on a commission policy requiring companies to report settlements of some product-safety lawsuits. He said "there was a level of embarrassment on the part of the staff" because they had spoken of the Reagan administration's policy rather than revisions adopted by the Bush administration.

Peterson said he did not regard the taping policy as unusual and that the same practice was followed when he was press secretary for Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) in the early 1980s. A spokesman for Warner, Philip Smith, said the office no longer tapes conversations between reporters and staff members but does record the senator's side of press interviews.

Peterson said his Commerce Department office also routinely taped discussions with reporters when he was deputy undersecretary for travel and tourism at the end of the Reagan administration. "As far as we can tell, there has never been a policy to tape-record interviews {with reporters}," said Jill Collins, a spokeswoman for the tourism office, who said that only longer, in-person interviews are recorded.