Walter Cronkite

Article excerpt

Broadcaster who became America's conscience as well as the country's 'favourite uncle'

The predominance of CBS Evening News in the 1960s and '70s, against fierce network competition, was essentially due to the personality of its handsome anchorman, Walter Cronkite. His calm voice and reassuring presence seemed to offer security in an increasingly dangerous world. He was known as America's favourite uncle.

Like many top-notch journalists, Cronkite began his professional career reporting sport. After graduating from the University of Texas his first full-time job was as a radio sports announcer in Oklahoma City. In 1937, aged 21, he joined the United Press news agency, where he remained for 11 years. He became an intrepid war correspondent, covering the battle of the North Atlantic in 1942 and landing in North Africa with the invading Allied troops. He was among the first American newsmen to take part in Flying Fortress daylight bombing raids over Germany.

Walter Cronkite was then an ambitious, ginger-haired youngster, described by Harrison Salisbury, his boss at UP, as "the best operating hard news man in London". In 1943 Edward R. Murrow, who was then building up his outstanding team of CBS correspondents, spotted Cronkite's abilities and offered him twice his UP salary to come and join them. Salisbury persuaded the tight-fisted UP to provide a substantial rise and Cronkite stayed with the news agency.

He dropped with the 101st American Airborne Division in Holland, was with General Patton's Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge when it broke through the German encirclement at Bastogne, and reported the German surrender. In the latter stages of the war he re- established the United Press bureaux in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. As UP bureau chief in Brussels, he was the agency's chief correspondent at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

With his charming wife Betsy he went in 1946 to Moscow for two years as the agency's chief correspondent. The difficulties were not limited to increasingly strained US/Soviet relations. The UP car was ancient and dilapidated, and during a particularly severe winter Cronkite sought permission to buy a new one (even the Russians were complaining about the old one's condition.) His superiors, however, suggested he get a bicycle.

Things like that undermine a foreign correspondent's confidence. Cronkite asked for a transfer home in 1948 and soon left UP. He lectured and contributed magazine articles before joining the CBS Washington Bureau, covering politics. From 1952 onwards he played a major role in coverage of the party conventions which nominated presidential candidates.

A decade later, he became anchorman of CBS Evening News, then a 15 minute programme but which expanded the following year to become the network's first half-hour-long national TV news show. It debuted with a Cronkite interview with President John F. Kennedy, and the combination of his authoritative presentation of the news of the day with the incisive analyses of his colleague Eric Sevareid made CBS the dominant TV news network of the era.

A list of Cronkite's assignments over three decades reads like a synopsis of mid-20th century world history: exclusive interviews with most major heads of government, including all US Presidents since Harry Truman; Watergate and the subsequent resignation of President Nixon; and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Dr Martin Luther King and - most unforgettably - of President Kennedy.

When word first came, around 1.30p.m. eastern time on 22 November 1963 that the President had been wounded, CBS broke into its programming and Cronkite, first in audio only and then on camera when a studio was ready, anchored the coverage. In a moment etched on the memories of those watching, Cronkite was handed a piece of paper from the Associated Press ticker. He put on his glasses, looked it over, and then took them off before informing his viewers: "From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1p. …