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Saluting the original television anchorman

Over the years, Walter Cronkite became something of a national institution, with an unflappable delivery and a voice guiding viewers through national triumphs and tragedies alike.

Former CBS newsman Walter Cronkite in an image from 2005.
Former CBS newsman Walter Cronkite in an image from 2005.

While in college in the late 1960s, I landed a newsroom dispatcher job where “The Scene Tonight” was broadcast with Dave Moore, Bud Kraehling and Hal Scott on WCCO-TV. I got to know a number of CBS network-bound newsmen including Phil Jones and Bob McNamera.

The most noted newsman in the country, however, was Walter Cronkite, who had joined the fledging CBS newsroom in New York City in 1950 and from 1962-1981 anchored the CBS Evening News. I watched this program faithfully from homes in rural Minnesota to college days and jobs in the Twin Cities.

Over the years, Cronkite became something of a national institution, with an unflappable delivery and a voice guiding viewers through national triumphs and tragedies alike. In an era when network news was central to many people’s lives, he was known as Uncle Walter to many; he was widely respected with his trimmed mustache and calm delivery. “And that’s the way it is,” was a sign-off salute to millions of viewers.

Cronkite attended the University of Texas studying political science, economics and journalism, working on the school newspaper and picking up journalism jobs with the Houston Press and other newspapers. He also auditioned to be an announcer at an Austin, Texas radio station but was turned down. He left college in 1935 without graduating to take a job as a print reporter.

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Later, while visiting Kansas City, he was hired by the radio station KCMO to read news and broadcast football games. He was not personally at the games but received summaries of each play by telegraph. These provided fodder for vivid descriptions of the action. He added details of what local fans in the stands were wearing, which he learned by calling their wives.

In the decades that followed, American’s have been exposed to many newscasters but it was likely Cronkite who was first termed an “anchor man” and national celebrity.

In 1995, 14 years after he retired from the “CBS Evening News,” a TV Guide poll ranked Cronkite number one in seven of eight categories for measuring television journalists. He wryly professed incomprehension that Maria Shriver beat him out in the eighth category, attractiveness.

On Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas; Cronkite briefly lost his composure when the president had been pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Taking off his black-framed glasses and blinking back tears, he reflected the sad emotions of millions.

In 1968, Cronkite visited Vietnam and returned to do a rare special program on the war. He called the conflict a “stalemate” and advocated “a negotiated peace.” President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the broadcast, Cronkite wrote in his 1996 memoir, “A Reporter’s Life,” quoting LBJ “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

Chuck Slocum
Chuck Slocum
Cronkite, of course, daily described wars, natural disasters, nuclear explosions, social upheavals and space flights, from Alan Shepard’s 15-minute ride to lunar landings. On July 20, 1969, at the exact time when the Eagle touched down on the moon, Cronkite’s comment was, “Oh, boy!”

Cronkite sometimes pushed beyond the usual two-minute limit on televised news items – Oct. 27, 1972, his 14-minute report on Watergate, followed by an eight-minute segment four days later, “put the Watergate story clearly and substantially before millions of Americans” according to historian Marvin Barrett.

As the story played out, on Aug. 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon became the first to ever resign from office.

It what was an uncharacteristically personal comment Cronkite shared with The Christian Science Monitor shortly before his passing, “I am a news presenter, a news broadcaster, an anchorman, a managing editor; I am not a commentator or analyst … I feel no compulsion to be a pundit.”

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Cronkite, who had pioneered and then mastered the role of television news with such a plain-spoken grace that he was called the most trusted man in America, died July 17, 2009 at his home in New York. He was 92.

Chuck Slocum is a management consultant based in Minnetonka, Minnesota.