Portrait of the Journalist as an Anchorman

Walter Cronkite
He was the broadcaster for whom the word "anchorman" was coined. Veteran CBS Newsman Walter Cronkite died Friday evening at the age of 92. He played a role in our national life like no other broadcast journalist . . . and all the rest of us are still following in his footsteps. Martha Teichner offers this appreciation:

For nearly twenty years one man told Americans "the way it is" . . .

. . . and they believed him.

"What made Walter Cronkite, Walter Cronkite? I could no more tell you that than I could tell you what made Spencer Tracy, Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant, Cary Grant," said Don Hewitt, one of Cronkite's earliest producers and the creator of "60 Minutes."

Years before there was such a thing as a TV anchorman, while Cronkite was still a combat reporter in WWII working for a wire service, it was already clear he had something.

"I'm just back from the biggest assignment that any American reporter could have so far in this war, covering the occupation of North Africa by American troops," he said as recorded in an old movie newsreel.

"It was my first time on camera," Cronkite remarked later, chuckling, "I just fell into whatever I do naturally. I never took any elocution lessons, no diction lessons. I might have been a pretty decent broadcaster if I had, but what you see, I'm afraid, is what you get."

Special Section: Walter Cronkite: 1916-2009

What Edward R. Murrow got in 1950, when he asked Cronkite to work for CBS News, was a first-rate reporter . . . a newspaper man with some radio experience, just as television news was being born . . . a time when radio was still dominant and, as Cronkite explained to Charles Osgood in 1997, "the really good people that we had didn't want to do television.

"They actually felt that it was below them, that it was some kind of show business, which it was and is, but they weren't going to play the game at all. And then they found out that it was important, that it had an impact beyond what they had expected.

"But by that time, I'd got myself fully nailed down in television. They didn't have a chance, not because I was better, but because I was there."

Cronkite was always there . . . wherever the biggest story in the world happened to be. And like a father or uncle, he seemed to be there for us.

Such as when he told people what happened on November 22, 1963. For a flicker of a moment that day viewers glimpsed the man as well as the consummate journalist, and sensed they could trust Walter Cronkite to tell them the news even when it was the most terrible.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather covered the Kennedy assassination in Dallas.

"I think the day President Kennedy died was the day that television news as we know it was born for all intents and purposes, and Walter Cronkite was a very important part of making it so," Rather said.

Charles Gibson, anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight," said "It was an establishing moment. It established that when momentous events occur and the country is deeply shaken, they gather at the television set. This is sort of the national meeting place."

As John-John saluted his father's funeral procession, Cronkite notes that "Anchormen shouldn't cry" - and he never did on the air. The dignity and composure he brought to his job, the gift of plain-speaking, his honesty, eventually gave Walter Cronkite the power to change history.

"In the early stages of our involvement in Vietnam, basically I felt that our course was right," Cronkite reported. "My concern grew with the concern of the American people."

Cronkite's personal papers, which he gave to the University of Texas, make clear just how quickly his concern took shape. Historian and CBS News consultant Douglas Brinkley showed us a speech given by the newsman for the Houston World Affairs Council in January 1965.

"He's not doing this on television," Brinkley said, "but here he's calling Vietnam a 'seemingly bottomless pit,' the 'insoluble quandary of Vietnam.'"

Brinkley is writing a biography of Cronkite.

"I don't want to make him seem as if, you know, in '65 he was an anti-war person per se."

He went back to Vietnam in 1968 after the Tet offensive. Cronkite, the meticulous reporter, came home convinced the war was unwinnable, and he said so . . . on television.

"It was a major moment in American history," Brinkley said. "It was CBS News saying 'Enough's enough' to the president of the United States."

"It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then would be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could," he said on air.

Cronkite himself said later, "I simply told people what I thought about the state of the war in Vietnam, and it was that we better get out of this."

"Lyndon Johnson was sitting at a television set that night and said, 'If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost the American people," recalled Hewitt.

"Johnson kind of melted in sorrow when this happened and realized that his presidency had failed, and that Cronkite had called him out," said Brinkley.

In 1968 the American people got a lot of bad news that year, and Walter Cronkite broke it to them: The killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. … and Robert Kennedy Jr. . . . and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer, when all hell broke loose, and Walter Cronkite let his anger show.

"I lost my temper at that moment," he recalled. "Sometimes I think it's perfectly legitimate for an anchor person or a newsperson on the air to let people know he's got a few feelings of his own."

It was his euphoria that Cronkite let show the following year when the Apollo XI astronauts went to the moon.

It's impossible to think of NASA and the space program without thinking of Walter Cronkite.

"I think that our conquest of space, as it were, is one of the great stories of the 20th century, and it did become, I'm happy to say, my story," Cronkite said.

"Was it disappointing to you that you never actually got to go into space?" Charles Osgood asked.

"The greatest disappointment in my life!' Cronkite said, when he was 80.

"If they offered me a chance to go tomorrow, if I thought I could pass the physical, I'd go. But I'd still see the opportunity as a glass half-empty. I wasn't getting to go to the moon."

In just about every other way, his life was a glass filled to the brim. When he wasn't doing the work he loved, he was sailing.

He adored his wife of sixty five years, from the moment he laid eyes on her in 1936 at a radio station in Kansas City. Her name was Betsy Maxwell.

"I was for some strange reason, rather shy about meeting her," Cronkite said. "And the two of us were suddenly cast in a commercial. The producer said, 'You're the boy, you're the girl, here, let's go.'

Walter: "Well, angel, what heaven did you drop from?"
Betsy: "I'm no angel."
Walter: "You look like an angel."
Betsy: "That's because I use Richard Hudnut cosmetics."

"The spark took," Cronkite said. "We went together for several years and finally married in 1940."

Betsy Cronkite died in 2005.

For fifteen of the 19 years that Cronkite anchored the "CBS Evening News," he demolished the competition in the ratings.

In poll after poll, he was voted the Most Trusted Man in America. There were even suggestions that he run for president. Cronkite said it wouldn't be appropriate.

Cronkite was so much more than what we think of today as an anchorman. It seemed inconceivable that he would ever retire, but he did, in 1981.

"I had dinner with him that night," recalled "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer. "And he said, 'I think maybe I'm making a terrible mistake.'"

Or maybe not. He left on a high, just as the snug three-network realm he presided over was beginning to fracture into the multiple choice mayhem television news has become.

At some level Cronkite had to have understood the uniqueness of his legacy. He saved everything.

Douglas Brinkley showed us the "tip of the iceberg" of his papers - bookshelves full of boxes. "You asked me what surprised me the most, is just how much Cronkitiana there is."

One letter said it all, from Lady Bird Johnson, widow of the president Cronkite helped to bring down. "Dear Walter, I believe I can say in all certainty you are a national hero. You are unabashedly one of mine."

It's hard to imagine that any one man could ever speak for the nation now. The fact that Walter Cronkite did is truly remarkable.

And that's the way it is.