Walter Cronkite, the television newsman whose steady baritone informed, reassured and guided the nation during the tumultuous 1960s and '70s and who was still regarded as "the most trusted man in America" years after leaving his CBS anchor chair, has died. He was 92.
Walter Cronkite, the television newsman whose steady baritone informed, reassured and guided the nation during the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s and who was still regarded as “the most trusted man in America” years after leaving his CBS anchor chair, has died. He was 92.
Mr. Cronkite died Friday, his family by his side, at his Manhattan home after a long illness, said CBS Vice President Linda Mason. He had been suffering from cerebrovascular disease, his family said recently.
As anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981, Mr. Cronkite’s masterful, disciplined stewardship helped television news come of age. He was arguably the most respected and recognizable media figure of his time.
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“Walter was truly the father of television news,” Morley Safer, a correspondent for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” said in a statement. “The trust that viewers placed in him was based on the recognition of his fairness, honesty and strict objectivity.”
President Obama praised Mr. Cronkite as the “voice of certainty in an uncertain world.”
Mr. Cronkite came to define the term “news anchor” during 31 years at CBS News. In Sweden, TV anchors are called Kronkiters; in the Netherlands, Cronkiters.
For two generations of Americans, Mr. Cronkite was a witness to history who also helped shape perceptions of it. Although he rarely displayed emotion on camera, those moments are seared into the nation’s collective consciousness — Mr. Cronkite tearing up while announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy, decrying the “thugs” at the 1968 Democratic presidential convention or exclaiming “Go, baby, go!” as Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon 40 years ago this week.
Raised in Missouri and Texas, Mr. Cronkite had a comforting Midwestern accent and an everyman likability. He came off as everyone’s “Uncle Walter,” an image he fostered by leaning back in his chair and fiddling with a pipe at the end of nightly broadcasts. When he signed off with “And that’s the way it is,” Americans believed him.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was watching CBS in 1968 when Mr. Cronkite followed a report critical of the Vietnam War with rare commentary — the anchor declared the war unwinnable and said the United States should pull out.
“He’s remembered for the one moment when he stepped out of character and decided, to his great credit, to go see (Vietnam) for himself,” said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism professor and sociologist.
Johnson reportedly turned to an aide and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” It’s speculated that this was a major reason Johnson decided not to run for a second full term.
“I can’t tell you, or describe, what it was Cronkite had, any more than I can tell you what Clark Gable or Cary Grant had,” said Don Hewitt, the CBS producer who created “60 Minutes” and worked 17 years on the “CBS Evening News.” “They just were.”
Recruited by Murrow
Mr. Cronkite had been at CBS since 1950 when legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow recruited him for the network’s young television division. Mr. Cronkite had distinguished himself as a daring World War II correspondent for the United Press wire service who flew on bombing missions and crash-landed in a glider.
The 1952 Republican National Convention launched Mr. Cronkite’s career and made clear television’s new dominance over radio. The broadcast also popularized an industry term, “anchorman,” to describe Mr. Cronkite’s central role in the convention coverage. Mr. Cronkite would go on to anchor more than a dozen political conventions and presidential elections.
With Mr. Cronkite’s urging, the nightly broadcast expanded from 15 minutes to half an hour on Sept. 2, 1963, and featured President Kennedy in one of his last interviews.
The most famous TV footage of Mr. Cronkite shows him delivering the bulletin on the 1963 presidential assassination. After he is handed a wire report, Mr. Cronkite pauses to gaze at it, then says, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash — apparently official — President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time … some 38 minutes ago.”
Over four days in November 1963, Mr. Cronkite showcased his ability to work without a script as CBS suspended regular programming to cover the aftermath of the assassination. Praise of the coverage invariably cited Mr. Cronkite’s dignified performance during the nation’s first period of electronic mourning.
As early as 1966, Time magazine had called the anchor “the single most convincing and authoritative figure in TV news.”
In the early 1970s, an opinion poll identified him as the most trusted public figure in America.
Years later, the 14 minutes that Mr. Cronkite devoted to “the Watergate caper” on Oct. 27, 1972, made it “a real national story,” David Halberstam wrote in his media study “The Powers That Be.”
The moon landing
Colleagues nicknamed him “Old Ironpants” for his ability to sit in the anchor chair — the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, Mr. Cronkite reportedly was on the air for 18 straight hours.
He displayed boyish enthusiasm for the space program, which he called the biggest story of the 20th century and “one of our last great adventures.” He also saw it as an upbeat escape.
The 1960s were “the worst decade of our history perhaps, including the Civil War,” Mr. Cronkite said in a 2001 CNBC interview, yet at “Cape Kennedy, everybody was not looking down despairingly. They were looking up. … It made a difference in our country.”
When the lunar module Eagle touched down on the moon in 1969, Mr. Cronkite wiped his brow and reverently confessed he had nothing to say. He was “overwhelmed, like most of the world,” he told Esquire magazine in 2006.
“I want to be the best”
Mr. Cronkite may have been a calm, unflappable presence on the air, but “he was always a hard-driving, fiercely competitive newsman off camera,” media critic David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times noted in 2003. He recalled spending a day with Mr. Cronkite for a 1979 magazine profile.
“Throughout the day,” Shaw recalled, “he was calling sources, prodding subordinates, asking questions, [continuing] to fume and fret and drive and demand … right up until 6:28, when he combed his hair, put on his jacket and — two minutes later — began the broadcast with his calm and customary, ‘Good evening.’ “
His staff lived in mortal terror of the explosion of anger that would surely follow if NBC had a story or even a fact that had not been on Mr. Cronkite’s show.
“I want to win,” he once said. “I not only want to win, I want to be the best. I feel very badly if I can’t be.”
The year he retired, Mr. Cronkite was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Arizona State University named its journalism school after him in 1984.
In the 1990s, he experienced something of a career renaissance after forming a production company with his son and another partner. He produced dozens of documentary programs for the Discovery Channel, PBS and other networks.
In retirement on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Mr. Cronkite pursued his lifelong passion for sailing on his ketch named the Wyntje and wrote books, including his well-received 1996 autobiography, “A Reporter’s Life.”
Shirley Enebrad, a freelance TV producer in Seattle, met Mr. Cronkite twice when he helped her kick off an environmental campaign based on a documentary she had produced.
Mr. Cronkite was much shorter than she expected, not much taller than her 5 feet, 3 inches, she said.
“He’s such an icon that I thought he would be bigger than life … and he was this little guy.”
He was very funny, she said, and personable and gracious.
“Walter was so down-home and such a nice man. No pretenses whatsoever.”
The lighter side
At home, he was “gregarious,” relishing “spinning a one-line joke out into an elaborate shaggy-dog story,” daughter Kathy Cronkite once recalled.
He expressed regret about being so aloof at work but was known for his hilarious parody of a burlesque queen’s striptease — he ultimately removed no more than his jacket and tie — at his annual Christmas party for CBS colleagues.
Mr. Cronkite’s survivors include his son, Walter Cronkite III, known as Chip; his daughters, Kathy and Nancy; and four grandsons.
His mother, Helen, lived to be 101 and died in 1993.
Had he known he would age so well, he would not have given up the anchor job so early, he often said.
Nearly a decade after retiring, Mr. Cronkite was asked what news story he wished he could have been in position to cover.
“Every one,” he said.
Material from The Associated Press, Miami Herald, The Washington Post and Seattle Times staff is used in this report.
“He was wise and good and fun. He was America at its best. We loved him dearly and shall miss him deeply.”
Luci Baines Johnson
“He had a passion for human space exploration, an enthusiasm that was contagious, and the trust of his audience. He will be missed.”
“A call, a note, a compliment from Walter was pretty much the Nobel Prize for a young reporter.”
“Walter always made us better. He set the bar so high.”
“You will never meet anyone who is as warm and as much of a gentleman as Walter Cronkite. He collected drums, including one from the drummer of the Grateful Dead. He adopted them and they adopted him; he was totally a fan. There were many sides to Walter.”