Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr.: 4 November 1916 * 17 July 2009

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr.: 4 November 1916 * 17 July 2009

Article excerpt

ANCHORMAN: The fastest runner on a relay team. The term was first used to describe Walter Cronkite's role in CBS' political convention coverage-when the PR department asked news producer Sig Mickelson, "What's Walter going to do?" He replied, "He is going to anchor for us."

And That's The Way It Is

If your perception of Walter Cronkite is an avuncular fellow with a pencil thin mustache and a sonorous speaking cadence of 120 words per minute (he slowed down to not lose any viewers), you are missing quite a story. The real life of Walter Cronkite recalls Winston Churchill's resolute formula for victory: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

Toil and sweat were virtually all Cronkite could offer as he clawed his way up the ladder from a small-time radio station in Kansas City to the United Press International (UPI), the most dynamic posting in World War II for an ambitious young journalist. As for tears, there isn't an American old enough to watch television in 1963 who doesn't recall a loss of composure. If glider flying during a time of war was anything like Cronkite described, there was blood, too. When an interviewer asked about his "jump" with the 101st Airborne, Cronkite set the facts straight, a habit that would follow him throughout his life:

No, I glided in-a far worse way to go. I almost refused the assignment when I got up to the 101st and they told me I was going by glider instead of parachute. I just about turned around and went home. I'd seen what happened to the gliders in Normandy, and it was pretty terrible. The same thing happened in Holland.

Historian David Halberstam called Walter Cronkite "the most significant journalist of the second half of the twentieth century" in the way one might say, "George Washington was the most significant politician of the second half of the eighteenth century." Depending on the circumstance, Cronkite could be both bigger and smaller than his reputation. "Walter Cronkite wore his mantle as the most trusted man in America exceedingly lightly. As honored as he was, he never actually believed it"as Morley Safer once said.

His dream was to anchor the CBS Evening News. Even the siren's song of the Vice Presidency couldn't tempt him (Frank Mankiewicz, political director of the McGovern 1972 presidential campaign, suggested Cronkite's name on the Democratic ticket. It didn't make it out of the smoke-filled room).

Cronkite was energized by the power and the glory of the anchor desk. Today, we would call him an action addict. Few were surprised when the plainsman from Missouri turned into a born power player once he held the reins. He wasted little time in remaking the broadcast in his image, as he related to Don Carleton of the Briscoe Center of the University of Texas (where Cronkite donated his personal and professional papers):

When I took over the CBS Evening News I wanted to be the ultimate judge of the news content. That made quite a difference to the producer Don Hewitt [later of 60 Minutes] because he had been running the show. I wanted to work differently. I suggested the title "Managing Editor." There were a lot of complaints from newspapers, "How dare a newsman on air call himself managing editor."

On 16 April 1962, Cronkite sat down in the anchor chair for the first time. He tried out a new voice, giving it a bit of Broadway and raising the decibel. It got him noticed alright. Trial and error was Cronkite's way of innovating, a practice he would repeat throughout his career. As soon as the broadcast was over, Andy Rooney (a former wartime buddy and later of 60 Minutes) sprinted over to the booth, as Cronkite recalled:

Rooney barked: "What are you trying to sell me? You broadcast like a pitchman. You're trying too hard. Calm down." And it was damned good advice.

His sign off was a Cronkitism as well:

I've always been intrigued with "irony of fate" type news stories. They usually appeared in the newspapers. …

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