Walter Cronkite, the CBS newsman so revered by Americans that they considered him the “most trusted man in America,” died today. He was 92.
Cronkite was the biggest name in television news, the king of the anchormen; in fact, he was the reporter for whom the term “anchorman” was coined. He gave up that role 28 years ago, but never lost the weight and respect it accorded him, living the rest of his life as the industry’s distinguished elder statesman.
As anchor and managing editor of the CBS EVENING NEWS from 1962 to 1981, Cronkite became the symbol of CBS News and the face two generations of Americans associate with some of the biggest stories of the 20th century. Speaking in a calm, authoritative voice with a screen presence that exuded confidence and familiarity, Cronkite formed a bond with Americans by bringing stories such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, space launches and the Vietnam War into their living rooms. The bond was so strong that Americans polled in 1973 chose him — by a 16 percent margin over the nearest competitor — as the “most trusted” public figure in the country. He still enjoyed that status 22 years later according to a poll published in TV Guide in 1995, nearly 15 years after relinquishing his anchor chair.
No doubt aware of the power that came with such respect, Cronkite never exploited it. Though it was suggested many times that he run for public office, he knew it would be devastating to journalism if reporters decided to capitalize politically on their popularity.
Cronkite’s popularity was growing for 10 years before he took over the then-15-minute CBS EVENING NEWS from longtime anchor Douglas Edwards on April 16, 1962. The next year, on Sept. 2, 1963, Cronkite’s news became the first half-hour network weeknight news broadcast. In an effort to punctuate the longer broadcast and personalize it in the process that first night, Cronkite conceived and delivered for the first time his iconic sign-off, “And that’s the way it is.” It didn’t happen overnight, but the CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE eventually overcame NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” in the ratings and became the television news broadcast of record.
Cronkite became one of the first nationally recognized television reporters and the model for the electronic news term “anchorman” when he reported from the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago. There, executives decided he would assume the crucial role on the team reporting the event, a role likened to the anchor spot on a track relay team. Cronkite remained the CBS News “anchor” for conventions and elections until 1980.
If the Kennedy assassination was the birth of modern television news, then Cronkite was midwife at an event that drew an entire nation to the still-novel medium. It was Cronkite, removing his glasses to wipe a tear, who first reported the president’s death on television and the man the country watched for much of the four commercial-free days that CBS News remained on the air — coverage some credit with helping to hold together an anxious nation in the midst of the Cold War.
No other network covered the space program as thoroughly as CBS News, and Cronkite, openly enthusiastic over its advances, became inextricably linked to it and is often credited with being the program’s biggest booster. “Old Iron Pants,” as Cronkite was known for being unflappable on live television, stayed on the air all but three of 27 hours of the Apollo XI lunar walk coverage. He admitted late in his life that he was so awed when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon that, for once, he was at a loss for words and merely uttered “Whew. Oh boy.”
Another story Cronkite seemed to make a personal mark on was Vietnam, also a baptism for television news. Despite the graphic images of death and destruction typical in America’s first televised war, he, like most Americans, seemed to support the conflict. After the bloody Tet Offensive of 1968 signaled a longer war, Cronkite decided to see for himself. He returned from Vietnam believing the war to be a quagmire and, in a rare editorial moment during a CBS News Special Report on Tet, told Americans as much. President Lyndon Johnson, watching the broadcast, is said to have told his press secretary that if he had lost Cronkite he had lost the American public. Indeed, public opinion for the war, already shifting, plummeted.
Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr. was born in St. Joseph, Mo., on Nov. 4, 1916. He became fascinated with journalism in high school, writing for his high school paper and getting a summer job with the The Houston Post, a paper he wrote for and occasionally delivered, too. He then attended the University of Texas at Austin for two years while juggling writing jobs for the Houston Press and Scripps-Howard as a state capitol reporter. He dropped out after two years to pursue his journalism and broadcasting interests that also included working as a sports announcer for a radio station in Oklahoma City before joining the United Press in 1937.
In 1940, he married Mary Elizabeth Maxwell, whom he met at KCMO radio in Kansas City, Mo. She remained at his side for 65 years, until her death in 2005.
To much fanfare, Cronkite stepped down from his anchor duties on March 6, 1981 to allow Dan Rather to take his place. Cronkite had reached the age of 65, and at the time, that was a mandatory retirement age at CBS News. He became a special correspondent and hosted several acclaimed CBS documentary programs, including the Emmy‑Award winning “Children of Apartheid” and the CBS News science magazine series WALTER CRONKITE’S UNIVERSE.
In 1985, Cronkite was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. He won four Peabody awards for excellence in broadcasting over his career and won virtually every electronic journalism award in existence during his tenure, including the du Pont Columbia, George Polk and Emmy awards. Cronkite twice won the Radio & Television News Directors’ Association’s highest honor, the Paul White award, a distinction shared by only one other, the late Dr. Frank Stanton, former CBS president. In 1981 Walter Cronkite was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest honor a U.S. civilian can receive.
His voice has been heard every night on LIVE 5 WCSC since 2006, introducing the CBS EVENING NEWS WITH KATIE COURIC.
LIVE 5 WCSC will broadcast a special, THAT’S THE WAY IT WAS: REMEMBERING WALTER CRONKITE this Sunday night at 7:00pm in place of 60 MINUTES.