Zucker, 55, made the announcement to staffers during a CNN editorial call on Thursday morning, according to three network staffers who participated.
Two network staffers, who were not authorized to comment publicly on the matter, said that Zucker had indicated that he initially planned to leave the network in early 2021 but changed his mind and decided to stay longer.
“I am going to stay at CNN through the end of this year,” Zucker told employees, according to a participant. “I cannot imagine not being here right now. I have this incredible seat in the very front row of history every day. I work with the best people in the business.”
But at the end of 2021, he said, “I do expect to move on.”
During the call, he made reference to extensive speculation in media coverage focused on whether he would leave the network that he helped build up. “I really hate that I have become the focus of some intrigue, and I hate it because we have so much more important news to cover,” he said.
Zucker has served as president of CNN since 2013, after spending four years as the chief executive of media conglomerate NBCUniversal, the capstone of a lengthy tenure at the company that saw him rise through the ranks and become an executive producer of the “Today” morning show.
Despite being a target of criticism for former president Donald Trump and his supporters, Zucker was largely popular with CNN employees, who valued his hands-on touch and passion for the news business.
“I’m relieved he is staying during this transition period in the country and for CNN,” a veteran employee told The Washington Post after the announcement. “It would have been more chaotic had he left next month.”
Zucker said he plans to use his remaining time at the network to put the network on a path to further growth. “We have challenges ahead, for sure,” he said. “But we could not be better positioned to meet them. The future is bright with tremendous opportunity, and I want to put all the right pieces into place to make sure that CNN remains strong for many years to come.”
Since the Nov. 3 presidential election, CNN has been on something of a roll. In January, the network was on top of the cable news heap, dethroning longtime ratings leader Fox News and outpacing the more left-leaning MSNBC as well.
In 2020, CNN recorded its largest audience since its founding in 1980, buoyed by coverage of the presidential campaign and the raging coronavirus pandemic.
Under Zucker, CNN focused intently on Trump, starting with his presidential campaign in mid-2015. The network often aired Trump’s raucous campaign rallies from start to finish, helping him emerge from a crowded field of candidates. Zucker later said he regretted giving Trump so much attention.
Trump returned CNN’s attention by repeatedly calling its reporting and commentary “fake news.” He occasionally went after Zucker directly, referring to him on Twitter as “Little Jeff Z.”
The public feuding belied a long and mutually fruitful association for both men: As president of NBC’s entertainment division in 2003, Zucker oversaw the network’s launch of “The Apprentice,” the boardroom reality show that featured Trump.
The program was a long-running hit for NBC and effectively bailed Trump out financially at a time when his private businesses were debt-ridden and struggling. The program, and licensing deals associated with it, eventually earned Trump $427 million. As New York Times critic James Poniewozik later wrote, “Donald J. Trump’s greatest success as a businessman, it turns out, was playing one on TV.”
More important perhaps was how “The Apprentice,” which aired from 2004 to 2015, inflated the Trump myth as a rich and successful business executive.
Zucker took over CNN in 2013 and quickly set about remaking it.
At the time, the network that had defined 24-hour TV news was adrift, sometimes finishing not only behind rivals Fox News and MSNBC in the ratings, but also HLN, a sister network that specialized in lurid court trials. The network’s annual advertising revenue had fallen alarmingly, by about 10 percent.
Zucker introduced unconventional programs, such as a weekend sports show and a food-and-travel program starring celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Falling back on his career-making years as executive producer of NBC’s “Today” show, he overhauled CNN’s morning program. The network’s lineup of anchors, hosts, producers and commentators was reshuffled, too.
One of Zucker’s new stars was anchor Jake Tapper, who became the host of an afternoon news program and a Sunday news-discussion show. And to the alarm of some CNN traditionalists, Zucker also directed the network to give wall-to-wall coverage of offbeat stories, such as a disabled cruise ship and the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.