Correction to This Article
The obituary of Walter Cronkite incorrectly described WTOP-TV, which eventually became WUSA, as being a CBS affiliate when Cronkite worked with the station in the 1950s. It was operated by CBS and jointly owned by The Washington Post Co. and CBS. The obituary also incorrectly said that NBC's nightly news program, hosted by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, was two weeks behind "The CBS Evening News" in expanding to a half-hour broadcast in 1963. NBC expanded its program one week after CBS did.
Page 2 of 4   <       >

America's Iconic TV News Anchor Shaped the Medium and the Nation

Walter Cronkite, who as one of America's most trusted TV newsmen informed CBS viewers about the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, Vietnam and more, died Friday July 17, 2009.

Cronkite took pride in being unemotional on the air, but the one occasion when he lost his composure, for the briefest of moments, became an indelible part of the nation's communal memory.

"From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official," he reported Nov. 22, 1963, while sitting at his newsroom desk in shirtsleeves, "President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time . . . "

He removed his black horn-rimmed glasses, paused as he choked back a sob and then continued reporting about the whereabouts of then-Vice President Johnson, soon to be sworn in as president.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, he exhibited almost a boyish glee when reporting on U.S. space triumphs. "Man on the moon! . . . Oh, boy! . . . Whew! Boy!" was his description of the spacecraft Eagle's landing on the moon on July 20, 1969. "Boy! There they sit on the moon! . . . My golly!"

Known as "old ironpants" for his durability, Cronkite spent 27 of the next 30 hours on the air.

The Original Anchorman

News was a stepchild of the television industry in 1962 when CBS asked Cronkite to be its evening news "anchorman," a term CBS coined and a job Cronkite shaped for decades to come. At the time, network executives did not see television news as a profit center; it would take "60 Minutes," created in 1968 by Cronkite's former executive producer Don Hewitt, to change that belief about profitability. Nightly news programs lasted only 15 minutes, which permitted little more than a bare summary of the day's front-page news.

On Sept. 2, 1963, Cronkite and CBS made television history with the first half-hour edition of "CBS Evening News." It included an exclusive interview with President John F. Kennedy. Two weeks later, NBC expanded its nightly news program, with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, to 30 minutes. ABC went to a half-hour format in 1967.

By 1968, Cronkite and CBS had established a dominance in the evening news viewer ratings that would remain unchallenged for the rest of his tenure as anchor and managing editor. He became the standard against which other television network anchors were judged, and his face became one of the most recognized in America.

So widely did Cronkite become known that eventually it interfered with his ability to cover politics, which had always been one of his passions. "I get off the bus in some small town and the crowd is around me rather than the candidate," he once said. "Not only is it embarrassing, it gets in the way of working. Instead of getting the crowd's reaction to the candidate, I'm dealing with the crowd's reaction to me."

His newscasts were based on a fundamental premise: "to tell it like it is without gimmicks," and he signed off each night's broadcast with the same line, "And that's the way it is."

The Competitive Journalist

Cronkite may have been a calm, unflappable presence on the air, but "he was always a hard-driving, fiercely competitive newsman off camera," David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times noted in 2003. The Times media critic recalled spending a day with him for a 1979 magazine profile.

"Throughout the day," Shaw recalled, "he was calling sources, prodding subordinates, asking questions, editing copy, deciding how stories would be played on that night's broadcast. At one point, when someone handed him a statement that had come in earlier from the Iranian Embassy, answering several questions he'd been pursuing, he exploded. . . .


<       2           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company