Obituaries: John Cameron Swayze
Friday 18 August 1995
Until 1948 the American networks had relied on the cinema newsreel companies to provide them with daily packages of newsreels. State of the art programmes began on the Columbia Broadcasting System's network with Television News with Douglas Edwards, a 15-minute early-evening show sombrely presented by one of Edward R. Murrow's young proteges. It followed the traditional standards of news integrity established by Murrow and used 16mm film which in those days was regarded as not quite professional, although its equipment was more manoeuvrable than 35mm.
In 1949 CBS's rival television network, the National Broadcasting Company, countered with the Camel News Caravan, also a 15-minute early-evening show, with a much more flamboyant personality as host. Like Douglas Edwards, Swayze had formerly been a radio newscaster. But by the age of 45 he had also become an expert showman. He had spent three years training as an actor in New York and on television he always wore a carnation in his lapel. Broadcasting, the Bible of the American television industry (or at least its Old Testament, as its Jewish publisher once corrected me) considered Swayze to be "the best-dressed TV news commentator . . . whose suave handling of the news matches perfectly his handsome face and impeccable garb". He usually wore casual slacks below his formal tie and jacket, which led to rumours that he read the news in his underpants.
In a breezy manner Swayze would conduct live interviews, often down the line with NBC correspondents in other cities. He also provided vigorous commentaries to the film sequences used on Camel News Caravan. The six to eight film items regularly included came from the principal American news centres as well as from London and Paris, though before the establishment of satellite transmission film had to be flown across the Atlantic and could not be up to date.
It was because of the superior visual quality of the 35mm film used on Camel News Caravan that BBC News Division abandoned its unofficial radio partnership with CBS and began its formal agreement with NBC to provide the American footage for the television news service it had decided to start.
Towards the end of each Camel News Caravan Swayze would say, "Now let's go hopscotching the world for headlines!" There would then follow an assortment of items for which no film was available. Each event had to be reduced to one sentence. He would then conclude, "That's the story, folks. Glad we could get together."
Camel News Caravan was sponsored by the makers of Camel cigarettes who protected their product with certain ground rules. No news personage could be shown smoking a cigar - with the exception of Winston Churchill, whose world reputation gave him special dispensation. And film shots of "No Smoking" signs were strictly forbidden.
Swayze rapidly acquired a great popularity with the growing television audience. In the 1950s he held other broadcasting posts such as a panellist on the NBC quiz show Who Said That? and the host of a children's educational programme Watch The World. After Camel News Caravan folded in 1956 he went to work for Timex, and read its television commercials for the next 20 years, popularising the slogan "It takes a licking but keeps on ticking."
John Cameron Swayze was born in Wichita, Kansas. After two years at the University of Kansas and a further three at the Dramatic School in New York City he became a journalist on the Kansas City Journal Post before turning to radio announcing and reporting. He and his wife Beulah Estes had a son and a daughter. All four used to appear in a 1950s television programme Sightseeing with the Swayzes. He died at his retirement home in Sarasota, the Florida resort where Barnum and Bailey's Circus used to winter, a most suitable place for an unabashed showman.
John Cameron Swayze, broadcaster: born Wichita, Kansas 4 April 1904; commentator, NBC, New York 1947-56; married 1932 Beulah Mae Estes (one son, one daughter); died Sarasota, Florida 15 August 1995.
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