On Nov. 6, 1947, the first guest on the first “Meet the Press” television broadcast was a retired postmaster general. It got better.
The show that popped up that day on the boxy black-and-white sets just beginning to appear in American living rooms began this way: “Tonight, the makers of Maxwell House coffee bring you America’s press conference of the air, ‘Meet the Press.’ ” The broadcast would go on to host every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy; world leaders, from India’s Indira Gandhi to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe; Cabinet members; presidential candidates; and just about any member of Congress who could get to NBC’s Washington studios on Nebraska Avenue in time for the “On Air” light.
At 70 continuous years, it’s the longest-running network show on U.S. television. Host Chuck Todd marked the moment Sunday by interviewing Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian in the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s been on as long as ‘Guiding Light’ was on,” marveled television historian Robert Thompson. “From the beginning, it defined what public affairs shows were going to be like.”
Kennedy made his first appearance as a young Boston congressman, already defining telegenic for a still-new medium. Ronald Reagan’s first time facing the row of reporters was as head of the actors’ union. Jackie Robinson was the first athlete on the show, telling the country in 1957 that “the Negro” had been waiting long enough for civil rights: “The Civil War has been over about 93 years; if that isn’t patience, I don’t know what is.”
The show was born of an unlikely radio show, “Leave It to the Girls,” a weekly roundtable on women’s issues with an all-female panel, plus one guy to provide a gender counterpoint. That show was created by Martha Rountree, a hard-charging reporter and producer with a South Carolina drawl. She persuaded magazine publisher Lawrence Spivak, who had appeared on her show in the man’s seat, to pitch the idea of a similar live radio press conference in which a newsmaker would face a panel of journalists. They launched “Meet the Press” in 1945 on the Mutual Radio Network and two years later talked their way onto NBC with a television version.
Spivak joined the panel of four invited print reporters, many of them Washington correspondents for various papers. Rountree served as moderator, a job she would hold until 1953, when she sold her share of the show to Spivak. He would book himself as a panelist for more than 30 years, developing a bulldog rep that would be a model for on-camera interrogators for a generation. His approach, as he described it to future moderator Tim Russert, was: “Learn everything about your guests’ positions on the issues — and take the other side!”
Almost immediately, “Meet the Press” was camera catnip for the powerful. The show, and the many imitators it would inspire, became an institution in political journalism and, when it moved to Sunday morning, added a day to the news cycle. By putting a camera in the room with an official and a panel of interviewers (there was always a group of them in the early years), MTP gave viewers one of their first peeks inside the sometimes combative relationship between those who had information and those who tried to pry it free.
At the beginning of the television age, “Meet the Press” dented the dominance of newspapers and thrilled news junkies with the you-were-there power of live broadcasting. One day after viewers watched Adlai Stevenson squirm around questions about his interest in being the Democratic nominee for president in 1952, the New York Post blared: “Boom on to Draft Stevenson,” according to a history of the show by Rick Ball. To this day, print reporters are assigned to watch the Sunday shows and report their news.
“The goal was to get stories from the Sunday show into the Monday newspapers,” said Barbara Cochran, a former executive producer who now heads the University of Missouri’s Washington journalism program.
The presence of Roundree in the center of the blocky, game-showy set marked MTP as the unusual haven for female journalists it would be for years. Many of the women in the Washington press corps served on MTP panels, most notably May Craig of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, she of the fancy hats who became notorious in Cuba for her tough questioning of Fidel Castro.
A string of women held the title of executive producer, including Cochran. Women seemed to excel, she said, in the trick of easing guests through an invitational inquisition.
“Because it was a live show, they were often a little nervous,” Cochran said. “I think women producers were particularly good at putting the guests at east and making them feel comfortable.”
Her favorite guest? Willie Nelson, who came on to promote his Farm Aid benefit concert.
All presidents since Eisenhower have sat for the show, whether before or after their terms. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton appeared as sitting presidents; Carter announced on the air that he would pulling Team USA from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Donald Trump was on in 1999, and was politely laughed at by the political class when he talked of running for the White House.
“Meet the Press” was a national confessional from the beginning. Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.) created headlines when admitted to Spivak that he was a proud member of the KKK, a point that he would use, successfully, in his own reelection campaign. Former President Richard M. Nixon appeared on MTP in 1988 and said he regretted having failed to pardon his imprisoned aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.
The Red Scare, of course, popped up regularly on the set. Whittaker Chambers denounced Alger Hiss as a Communist on the air in 1948, and Hiss sued him for defamation. In 1948, former Communist Elizabeth Bentley named Commerce Department officer William Remington as a red, prompting him to sue her. Joseph McCarthy came on for the fifth time in 1951, sitting next to an unnerved Rountree with a pistol in his lap because he had been warned there was an assassin in the audience.
Viewers ate it up. Nightly news shows reported the news, but “Meet the Press” sometimes showed it being made.
“ ‘The Camel News Caravan’ was giving us the headlines,” Thompson said. “But ‘Meet the Press’ actually allowed you to see the process.”
Foreign leaders, from diplomats to despots, welcomed the chance to speak directly to American households. French Premier Pierre Mendes-France disgraced himself at home by drinking milk on the air. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos appeared so often he put a satellite uplink in his palace and came on for the last time the very morning he fled Manila in 1986.
It was seldom very hard to get the guests, said Cochran, who was involved in booking South African Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, only to hear him spout a profanity on live television.
“People were very flattered if you asked them, even if it made them kind of nervous,” she said.
And that first guest, former postmaster general James Farley? He was also a major player in the Democratic Party, an early backer of Franklin Roosevelt. The people at “Meet the Press” knew what they were doing from day one.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Lawrence Spivak.
Read more Retropolis: