His second principle was that a reporter can never have too much information, know too many people, read too many books, make too many phone calls, ask too many questions or check too many facts before writing.
In the two decades before his retirement, he attended every summit conference between U.S. presidents and leaders of the Soviet Union. He also covered dozens of meetings of foreign ministers and lesser officials; visited Vietnam, Berlin, the Middle East and other hot spots; became a familiar presence in the dining rooms and drawing rooms of Embassy Row; and sat through countless hearings on Capitol Hill and briefings and news conferences at the White House and other centers of power.
Chalmers M. Roberts, right, chief diplomatic correspondent, with former managing editor Alfred Friendly in The Post's newsroom in 1973.
(The Washington Post)
His diligence paid off in the story of the Pentagon Papers. The wide knowledge of the subject he had gathered over the years enabled him to master the material and write quickly. Speed was of the essence, because The Post wished to publish before the government enjoined it not to.
For The Post, the story of the papers began on Sunday, June 13, 1971, when the New York Times began publishing a massive series based on the documents. Post editors recognized the importance of the story and set about getting a copy of the history. In the meantime, Mr. Roberts gave credit to the Times and rewrote its stories for Post readers.
On Thursday, June 17, a Post editor delivered a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Bradlee's residence. Mr. Roberts and two other reporters went there to work, and it was decided that Mr. Roberts would write for the next day's editions.
Meanwhile, the federal government, citing espionage laws, got a temporary injunction from a federal judge directing the Times to cease publication and return the material to the authorities. The Times suspended publication pending court developments but kept its copy of the papers. Post executives expected similar action. Among the questions facing them was whether the order obtained against the Times applied to The Post as well.
While Mr. Roberts and the other reporters labored in one room, Post attorneys and editors debated what to do in another room. When it appeared that there might be a decision against publishing even before The Post had been enjoined, Mr. Roberts confronted the doubters with the statement that if his story did not appear, he would resign immediately and disavow The Post's action. This strengthened the hand of those who wanted to publish. The final decision to go ahead with the story was made by Katharine Graham, at that time the publisher of The Post.
When the government moved against The Post, Mr. Roberts was one of the named defendants.
On June 30, the Supreme Court, after a series of lower court actions, issued a 6 to 3 decision in favor of the newspapers. It came on the last day Mr. Roberts was scheduled to work at The Post.
Chalmers McGeagh Roberts was born in Pittsburgh on Nov. 18, 1910. He attended Amherst College, where he was an editor of the school newspaper. After graduating in 1933, he moved to Washington and worked briefly for The Post as a $15-a-week cub reporter. Later, he was a reporter for the Associated Press in Pittsburgh and the Toledo News-Bee in Ohio.
In the mid-1930s, he and a college friend, Alfred Friendly, who later became managing editor of The Post, toured Europe, where they learned about Adolf Hitler. In 1936-37, they tramped around the United States, relying on odd jobs and handouts to support themselves.
In 1938, Mr. Roberts went to Tokyo and joined the staff of the Japan Times, an English-language publication of the Japanese Foreign Ministry. He toured Korea, China and Mongolia before returning to the United States in 1939 and taking a job with the Washington Daily News. He was on the staff of the Washington Times-Herald when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, bringing the United States into World War II.
He soon left for the Army Air Corps and the Office of War Information. He specialized in making use of intercepted Japanese military messages.
After his military service, Mr. Roberts returned to the United States. He worked in New York as a picture editor, then in Washington as the picture editor at Life magazine. He was fired from that job, which persuaded him to return to reporting. He worked for the Washington Star before joining The Post in 1949. In retirement, he was a contributing columnist to The Post and the San Diego Union. In his article last fall, he noted that he felt content.
"I've done my thing. Raised my kids. Helped each of them get a house. Did my newspapering, my journalism, as best I could, dammit. Had my byline in The Washington Post since 1949 -- not bad, either."
In 1973, Mr. Roberts published his autobiography, "First Rough Draft: A Journalist's Journal of Our Times." The title was taken from a phrase used by his friend, the late Philip L. Graham, a former publisher of The Post, who described journalism as "the first rough draft of history."
Books by Mr. Roberts included "Washington Past and Present" (1950) and "The Nuclear Years: The Arms Race and Arms Control 1945-70" (1970). He also was the semiofficial historian of The Post, having written, at Katharine Graham's request, "The Washington Post: The First 100 Years" (1977). An updated edition was published in 1989 under the title "In the Shadow of Power: The Story of The Washington Post." He also edited the book "Can We Meet the Russians Half-Way?" (1958).
His last book appeared in 1991. A compendium of observations as much as a narrative, it described among other things getting up in the middle of the night to give a bottle to a very small grandson. The title could serve as an epitaph for its author: "How Did I Get Here So Fast? Rhetorical Questions and Available Answers From a Long and Happy Life."
Survivors include three children, David H. Roberts of Newton, Mass., Patricia R. Monahan of Alexandria and Christopher C. Roberts of Chevy Chase; and nine grandchildren.
Staff writer Joe Holley contributed to this report.