Walter Cronkite: Broadcaster who became America's conscience as well as the country's 'favourite uncle'

The predominance of CBS Evening News in the 1960s and '70s, against fierce network competition, was essentially due to the personality of its handsome anchorman, Walter Cronkite. His calm voice and reassuring presence seemed to offer security in an increasingly dangerous world. He was known as America's favourite uncle.

Like many top-notch journalists, Cronkite began his professional career reporting sport. After graduating from the University of Texas his first full-time job was as a radio sports announcer in Oklahoma City. In 1937, aged 21, he joined the United Press news agency, where he remained for 11 years. He became an intrepid war correspondent, covering the battle of the North Atlantic in 1942 and landing in North Africa with the invading Allied troops. He was among the first American newsmen to take part in Flying Fortress daylight bombing raids over Germany.

Walter Cronkite was then an ambitious, ginger-haired youngster, described by Harrison Salisbury, his boss at UP, as "the best operating hard news man in London". In 1943 Edward R. Murrow, who was then building up his outstanding team of CBS correspondents, spotted Cronkite's abilities and offered him twice his UP salary to come and join them. Salisbury persuaded the tight-fisted UP to provide a substantial rise and Cronkite stayed with the news agency.

He dropped with the 101st American Airborne Division in Holland, was with General Patton's Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge when it broke through the German encirclement at Bastogne, and reported the German surrender. In the latter stages of the war he re-established the United Press bureaux in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. As UP bureau chief in Brussels, he was the agency's chief correspondent at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

With his charming wife Betsy he went in 1946 to Moscow for two years as the agency's chief correspondent. The difficulties were not limited to increasingly strained US/Soviet relations. The UP car was ancient and dilapidated, and during a particularly severe winter Cronkite sought permission to buy a new one (even the Russians were complaining about the old one's condition.) His superiors, however, suggested he get a bicycle.

Things like that undermine a foreign correspondent's confidence. Cronkite asked for a transfer home in 1948 and soon left UP. He lectured and contributed magazine articles before joining the CBS Washington Bureau, covering politics. From 1952 onwards he played a major role in coverage of the party conventions which nominated presidential candidates.

A decade later, he became anchorman of CBS Evening News, then a 15 minute programme but which expanded the following year to become the network's first half-hour-long national TV news show. It debuted with a Cronkite interview with President John F. Kennedy, and the combination of his authoritative presentation of the news of the day with the incisive analyses of his colleague Eric Sevareid made CBS the dominant TV news network of the era.

A list of Cronkite's assignments over three decades reads like a synopsis of mid-20th century world history: exclusive interviews with most major heads of government, including all US Presidents since Harry Truman; Watergate and the subsequent resignation of President Nixon; and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Dr Martin Luther King and – most unforgettably – of President Kennedy.

When word first came, around 1.30p.m. eastern time on 22 November 1963 that the President had been wounded, CBS broke into its programming and Cronkite, first in audio only and then on camera when a studio was ready, anchored the coverage. In a moment etched on the memories of those watching, Cronkite was handed a piece of paper from the Associated Press ticker. He put on his glasses, looked it over, and then took them off before informing his viewers: "From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago." He then paused briefly and put his glasses back, swallowing hard to keep his composure.

That day, however, he was only reporting history. With his coverage of the war in Vietnam, Cronkite may have changed history. He had grown increasingly sceptical about President Johnson's repeated assertions that America was winning the war, and in 1968 went to see for himself. His verdict was that the conflict had become a bloody stalemate and victory was not on the cards. The only rational way out, he declared, "will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honourable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

Cronkite was Johnson's favourite newsman, and on hearing that judgement, the President turned to his aides and said, "It's all over." Cronkite, he knew, had more authority with the American people than any other broadcaster, and if Cronkite thought that the war was hopeless the American people would think so too. A few weeks later Johnson announced an end to the air and naval bombardment of most of Vietnam and that he would not seek another term. David Halberstam, the American media watcher, commented, "It was the first time in history that a war had been declared over by an anchorman."

But a change of administration did not soften Cronkite's views. As the deeply unpopular war continued under Nixon, and as CBS stepped up its coverage of the Watergate scandal, Republicans would accuse Cronkite of having a liberal bias. In an interview with Variety magazine, he admitted the offence, defining a liberal as "one who is not bound by doctrine or committed to a point of view in advance."

He took part, with Richard Dimbleby, in the first live TV exchange across the Atlantic, via Telstar. He became an authority on America's space programme, reporting Alan Shepard's first flight in 1961 and the Apollo 11 flight in 1969, when man landed on the moon. Recalling moments from that historic mission, which earned him an Emmy, Cronkite said, "I experienced a first in my life, too. I found myself on the air speechless."

In fact, his unflappability under pressure earned him the nickname of "Old Iron Pants." Cronkite received many awards for his journalistic achievements, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981. The citation by Jimmy Carter praised him for "reporting and commenting on the events of the last two decades with a skill and insight which stands out in the news world."

Cronkite chaired his last edition of CBS Evening News on 6 March 1981. Almost 65, he was technically easing into retirement, with more time to enjoy sailing his 48-foot yacht the Wyntje – one of whose trips, from Chesapeake Bay down to Key West in Florida, resulted in the book South by Southeast (1983), with paintings by the artist Ray Ellis. The pair collaborated on two further sailing books, covering the waterways of America's Northeast Coast and its Pacific Coast.

But, as Cronkite himself put it on his valedictory statement on the Evening News, "Old anchormen don't fade away; they just keep coming back for more." Well into the 21st century he would provide special reports and commentaries on CBS, CNN, and National Public Radio. Later he was an outspoken critic of George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, likening America's presence there to its bloody involvement in Vietnam a generation earlier.

Long before that, he had become a listed national institution. Typical was his performance in 2002 as the voice-over for the founding father Benjamin Franklin in all 40 episodes of an educational television cartoon called Liberty's Kids. During each one, he read historical news segments that ended with his old CBS anchorman sign-off, "And that's the way it is." No one of a certain age needed reminding who was speaking.

Leonard Miall



Walter Cronkite, broadcaster: born St Joseph, Missouri 4 November 1916; United Press reporter 1937-42; war correspondent 1942-45, foreign correspondent 1945-48; correspondent, CBS News Washington 1950, anchorman and managing editor CBS Evening News 1962-81; Presidential Medal of Freedom 1981; married 1940 Mary Elizabeth (Betsy) Maxwell (died 2005, two daughters, one son); died 17 July 2009.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star