alter Cronkite once was described — famously, and no doubt, accurately — as the most trusted man in America. As the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 until 1981, he set a standard for accuracy, fairness and dependability never surpassed. The term anchorman was invented to describe Cronkite. His fame was worldwide: In Sweden, anchors are called “Cronkiters.”
Cronkite’s avuncular and authoritative baritone guided viewers through some of the most traumatc
and spellbinding news events of the 20th century: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the civil rights struggles in the South; the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the first walk by man on the moon in 1969; the Vietnam War; and the Watergate scandal. Always he delivered a report that viewers could believe absolutely.
In an oft-quoted accolade, an independent poll
n 1972 named him “the most trusted man in America.”
Cronkite’s achievements at CBS were preceded by a distinguished career as a combat correspondent for the United Press wire service during World War II. He went on bombing missions over Germany; covered the Allied invasion of Normandy; parachuted into Holland with the 101st Airborne Division; and crash-landed in a glider at Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of
After his retirement from CBS, Cronkite enjoyed a leisurely third career, extending into his 80s, as a narrator of specials and documentaries on PBS and the Discovery and Learning cable channels. His working life as a journalist spanned more than six decades.
Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was born Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo., the only child of a denist.
His ambition to cover news began in boyhood.
“At the age of 6,” he recalled, “I went running down the hill through our neighborhood to spread
he news of Presi-dent Harding’s death. Three years later I started peddling the Kansas City Star, so I guess that’s when I knew the die was cast.”
In 1933, at the age of 16, Cronkite enrolled in
he University of Texas, where he worked on the campus newspaper and as a stringer for the Houston Post and the old International News Service, which in 1958 merged with United Press
o form UPI.
In the most unusual of his several jobs, he called the race results in a bookie joint in Austin for $75 a week.
Cronkite dropped out of the University of Texas in 1935 to help support his mother, who was left without an income or alimony after her divorce from Cronkite’s father, who had become an alcoholic. That year he began life as a full-time
ournalist, first with the Austin bureau of the Scripps-Howard News Service and then for the Houston Post.
In 1936, Cronkite went to work briefly for a Kansas City radio station, KCMO, where one of
he most significant events of his life occurred. There, in a hallway, he told A&E’s “Biography” series in 1998, he saw “the most gorgeous creature I had ever seen in my life, an absolutely sensaional
She was a felow
employee, Mary Elizabeth Simmons Maxwell, called Betsy. They married in 1940, had
hree children — daughters Nancy and Kathleen; and son, Walter Leland “Chip”Cronkite III — and their union endured lifelong.
Well-schooled by a varied apprenticeship, Cronkite began an 11-year career with United Press in its Kansas City bureau in 1937. Kansas City was raffish and lively back then, its fabled 12th Street lined with jazz clubs and strip joints, and young Cronkite took it all in. “The Chesterfield Club had nude waitresses, and that was for lunch,” he told “Biography.”
Twenty-five years old when the United States was drawn into World War II, Cronkite made his reputation with a series of hazardous overseas assignments, including sailing in a convoy that was attacked by Nazi submarines and covering the
nvasion of North Africa, the first amphibious assault in U.S. history. But he refused to be called heroic:
“I was scared to death all the time. The truth is
hat I did everything only once. It didn’t take any great courage to do it once. If you go back and do
t a second time, knowing how bad it is, that’s courage.”
It wasn’t all fright night, however. While staioned
in blacked-out London, Cronkite’s customarily keen powers of observation and analysis came into play during a walk on the wild side:
“As we males made our way down Piccadilly in the impenetrable darkness, we would hear the click of heels announcing the arrival of a lady of the night. Wearing cheap perfume, she would run her hand along our pants leg. That might have seemed the opening to a street-corner mating dance. Wrong.
“This was economic foreplay. By feeling the cloth, the ladies could tell whether the male concerned was in the American or British army and whether he was an officer or an enlisted man. On that determination hung the price at which she would open the bidding.”
After the war, Cronkite covered the Nuremberg war crimes trial and served as chief of UP’s bureau in Moscow. Like so many Unipressers, he left in 1948 because of the wire service’s low pay and created a job for himself covering Washington for 10 Midwestern radio stations.
The greatest of radio newsmen, the magisterial Edward R. Murrow, knew Cronkite from their wartime days in London. After the Korean War broke out in 1950, Murrow offered Cronkite a job with CBS, starting a television association that lasted more than three decades.
Beginning with his Korean War coverage every night on WTOP, the TV station that CBS owned in Washington, Cronkite’s rise was rapid. With little news film to speak of, working mostly with maps and a blackboard, Cronkite demonstrated his great powers to simplify and explain, backed by the sure sense of authority born out of his experience as a war correspondent.
His WTOP work caught the eye of Sig Mickelson, president of the CBS news department, who chose Cronkite to spearhead the network’s coverage of the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago. Mickelson coined the term anchorman to describe Cronkite’s role as the hub of the coverage.
“Within hours of the opening gavel, an electric excitement swept through the CBS people,” Gary Paul Gates wrote in “Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News” (1978). “The moment was not unlike an opening night on Broadway when a new talent explodes across the footlights for the first time.”
In 1952, there was a shift in television history as TV replaced radio as the dominant force in broadcast journalism.
While Douglas Edwards anchored the “CBS Evening News” in the 1950s, Cronkite busied himself with a variety of anchoring, hosting and narrating assignments on shows including “The Week in Review,” “Pick the Winner” and “You Are There.”
He never grumbled or shirked, not even when he was assigned to discuss the news of the day with Charlemagne the lion, a puppet on “The Morning Show.” “A puppet can render opinions on people and things that a human commentator would not feel free to utter,” he wrote in his autobiography, “A Reporter’s Life” (1996). “It was one of the highlights of our show and I was, and am, proud of it.”
While polishing his coverage of political conventions to peerless luster, Cronkite saw an opportunity to develop a second salient specialty when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. As Gates wrote in “Air Time”: “He was determined to be better prepared for that story than any other TV correspondent, and he spent months studying the deeply complicated subject of astrophysics. As a result, by the time the astronaut program was launched in the early 1960s, he was far more conversant in the language of space technology than any of his colleagues or competitors.”
In 1962, Cronkite replaced Edwards as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” beginning a 19-year run in the role that made him more famous than most of the people he covered.
In 1963, as the show became more serious and scrupulous under his sway, the “CBS Evening News” was expanded from its original 15 minutes to the 30 minutes it still occupies today.
When Cronkite took over, however, the “NBC Nightly News,” co-anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, was No. 1 in the Nielsen nightly news ratings. It took Uncle Walter, as he came to be called by millions, years to overtake them.
Cronkite encountered only one broken rung as he climbed the ladder of success in the 1960s. After he finished second to Huntley/Brinkley in the ratings for the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, CBS President William S. Paley ordered him replaced at the subsequent Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.
But the replacement team of Roger Mudd and Robert Trout, derisively nicknamed “The Field and Stream Show,” did no better. So Cronkite returned to the role that Mickelson had named for him and anchored all eight national conventions from 1968 through 1980.
Always a patriot, Cronkite supported the Vietnam War until the pivotal Tet offensive in 1968, when he donned a steel helmet and flak jacket to observe the situation for himself in Saigon and Hue. He returned to anchor a report, shocking at the time, whose conclusion shines decades later like a wise man’s realism:
“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. … For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. …
“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. … It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
In his famous reaction, President Lyndon B. Johnson told his aides, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Subsequently, he decided not to run for re-election.
David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 while covering Vietnam for the New York Times, later wrote, “It was the first time in American history that a war had been declared over by a commentator.”
Cronkite also influenced the Watergate scandal. Coverage, initiated by The Washington Post, was languishing nationally when Cronkite laid out the known facts in a lucid two-part report shortly before the 1972 presidential election.
“The White House went crazy, absolutely crazy,” said “CBS News” producer Sandy Socolow. Coverage perked up — “It was as if the story had been blessed by the Great White Father,” said Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee — and remained unrelenting until Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974.
Cronkite was at the peak of his popularity and influence. He seized first place in the nightly news ratings in 1967 and never relinquished his grip. Cronkite said, “That’s the way it is,” the closing line he made up himself, for the last time on the “CBS Evening News” on Friday, March 6, 1981. He was succeeded the following Monday by Dan Rather, who had worked with him for many years, notably as White House correspondent during Watergate.
CBS forced Cronkite out eight months before normal retirement age, his 65th birthday, because it was anxious to retain Rather, pursued by other networks with lucrative offers. CBS locked Cronkite in what he called “golden handcuffs”: He agreed not to work for either of the other major networks, NBC and ABC, and in exchange received a seat on the CBS board of directors and $1 million a year until he was 72.
In 1997, Cronkite underwent heart bypass surgery. But he soon went back to work in cable TV, his haven after his long association with CBS ended.
In 1998, for the Cable News Network, he coanchored the coverage as former Mercury astronaut John Glenn returned to space at age 77 aboard the shuttle Discovery. In 1962, Cronkite had covered Glenn when he became the first American to orbit Earth.
His second book, “Around America,” a historical “tour” of America’s coastlines, reported from his sailboat Wyntje, was published in 2001.
Sadly, his recent years haven’t been without heartache. Cronkite lost the love of his life, wife Betsy, in 2005 to cancer, after almost 65 years of marriage.
Today you can still hear him on the news, as the voice for the introduction to the “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.”
To the end, Uncle Walter lived up to his description by the National Review: “A legend, a national father figure, a symbol of decency and good character.”