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Fifty years later, "accidental anchor" reflects on filling in for Cronkite

"Accidental anchor"
"Accidental anchor" 03:04

NEW YORK -- Fifty years ago this month, AFTRA, the union representing TV personalities, had called a walkout. Some of the most famous TV faces of the day, including "What's My Line" host John Daly, were off the air and on the street.

And the list included longtime "CBS Evening News" anchor Walter Cronkite.

Newscasters were replaced by management. But who would sub for Cronkite?

Arnold Zenker CBS News

An A-to-Z search led to Arnold Zenker, a 28-year-old CBS News executive, who had worked his way through school doing radio broadcasts.

"And I said I'd never done television. They said you're going to do the 'CBS Morning News,' then they said stay around and do the 'Midday News,'" Zenker told current anchor Scott Pelley in a recent conversation.

Pelley on Cronkite 06:04

And, with about an hour of TV experience under his belt, Zenker was called back to fill in for Cronkite.

Zenker was a hit, so much so that he received more than 3,000 fan letters.

"It's the standard case of the understudy. The star goes out and, for whatever reason, the understudy nobody's ever heard of comes in and sits in the chair, gets decent reviews and it's a terrific feel good story," Zenker said.

"The anchor was born," Pelley said.

"I do think they almost felt, 'he hit the lottery, maybe I could hit the lottery someday,'" Zenker said.

Scott Pelley with Arnold Zenker, one of his predecessors in the CBS News

On its 13th day, the strike -- over wages at local stations -- was settled.

After weeks at the pinnacle of network news, Zenker was told he had a great future -- behind him.

Cronkite's understudy 00:51

"They laughed and they said 'you're not a journalist, you're a fraud who sat in front of the camera,' and that's when I decided to go to Boston and do the news," he said.

Bitten by the anchor bug, Zenker tried his hand at local TV. Years later, he briefly returned to CBS in a "60 Minutes" cameo in his new career training executives to master the public spotlight.

On his first broadcast after the strike, the most trusted man in America looked into the camera with a twinkle in his eye and said, "This is Walter Cronkite substituting for Arnold Zenker. It's good to be back."

Now, a half-century after Zenker made headlines, he is a footnote.

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