CBS News marks historic Cronkite anniversary

(CBS News) "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" made its debut 50 years ago, April 16, 1962 as a 15 minute broadcast.

For generations of Americans, the simple words spoken at the top of the broadcast, "This is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite," were a comforting, nightly cue to stop and listen for a moment to the man affectionately known as Uncle Walter.

"The relationship America has with Cronkite is intense and very personal," historian Douglas Brinkley said. "He broke through the glass."

Walter Cronkite dies at 92
Cronkite: In his own words

Cronkite was, quite simply, a member of the family present each night at dinner with a snapshot of the day.

"He had an impact on this country like reporters never do," said CBS News Chairman and "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager. "I mean, imagine a reporter is considered the most trusted man in America. That's the kind of legacy that's unheard of."

For Cronkite, it wasn't immediate. Despite his years as a respected wire service reporter, moving into the anchor chair was almost seen as a demotion. "When he took over the evening news, he was looked down upon by the people who were the heroes of CBS News," Fager said. Edward R. Murrow and his boys, "they were the big figures."

"I think the main factor of Cronkite being chosen was he did not have a lot of negatives," Brinkley said. "He was reliable, and he was Mr. Space."

(At left, watch Cronkite anchor first space walk)

Cronkite's boyish enthusiasm for the space program was infectious. But it was his front row seat to both the triumph and the tragedy that shaped his legacy.

"Cronkite becomes iconic because of the Kennedy assassination," Brinkley said, "when he famously in November 1963 takes the glasses off and fidgets with them and has a tear in his eye."

Cronkite said, "From Dallas, Texas - the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 pm, central standard time."

PICTURES: Cronkite and the space program

"You always need a voice, you just need a leader, people need somebody to march behind," said "48 Hours" executive producer Susan Zirinsky. "He took the country by their hand through some really painful moments. These are mile markers for a country."

Cronkite's intense focus on objectivity gave his rare dose of opinion - especially his 1968 assessment of the war in Vietnam - an enormous weight.

"It seems not more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate," Cronkite said.

Zirinsky said, "Lyndon Johnson remarked, because he looked at that broadcast, and he said, 'If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost the country.'"

Behind the scenes, Cronkite embraced his role as managing editor. He is consistently described as intensely dedicated to the facts, to the story, to the reputation of CBS News.

Fager said, "I think Walter always thought of it as 'This is my broadcast, my name is on this broadcast, I need to know what we're reporting. And I need to know that we can count on what we're reporting.'"

CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante joined the team in 1964. "Cronkite could be tough on correspondents," Plante said. "He would demand to know what was going on and what you knew and sometimes say that you needed to get more."

(Watch below: Cronkite signs off the "CBS Evening News")

It was those strict standards that helped Cronkite stay on top of the evening news race. It was a careful, nightly orchestration that was consistent, but never grew tired. "All of that comes from his steadiness, the fact that he was not off-putting," Brinkley said. "Ted Turner once said to me, 'Cronkite is the only guy in television history that people never got sick of.'"

Forced by the network's then-policy to retire at age 65, Cronkite signed off the broadcast in March 1981. Did Cronkite have any regrets? "I think he did. I think he did," Fager said. "I think there was a certain point in time where he wanted to have it back, he wanted to get back into that anchor chair."

Cronkite's legacy has inspired countless journalists, from Watergate interns like Susan Zirinsky to his grandson, Walt Cronkite IV who's now part of the CBS News Washington bureau.

"He stepped down 30 years ago from the evening news and we're still talking about him," Fager said. "It's hard to imagine anybody bigger than Walter Cronkite.

  • Erica Hill

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