The Life of Walter Cronkite, Pioneer of Television News

The legendary broadcaster was known as "the most trusted man in America"

Walter Cronkite at the CBS News anchor desk
Walter Cronkite anchoring the news. Bettmann/Getty Images 

Walter Cronkite was a journalist who defined the role of network anchorman during the decades when television news rose from being the neglected stepchild of radio to a dominant form of journalism. Cronkite became a legendary figure and was often called "the most trusted man in America."

Originally a print reporter who excelled as a battlefield correspondent during World War II, Cronkite developed a skill for reporting and telling a story which he brought to the embryonic medium of television.

As Americans began receiving much of their news from television, Cronkite was a familiar face in living rooms across the country.

During his career Cronkite covered combat up close, putting himself at risk on a number of occasions. In less dangerous assignments he interviewed presidents and foreign leaders, and covered critical events from the McCarthy era to the early 1980s. For a generation of Americans, Cronkite provided a highly credible voice and a steady and calm manner during tumultuous times. Viewers related to him, and to his standard closing line at the end of each broadcast: "And that's the way it is."

Early Life

Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on December 4, 1916. The family moved to Texas when Cronkite was a child, and he became interested in journalism during high school. While attending the University of Texas, he worked for two years part-time for the Houston Post newspaper, and after leaving college he took a variety of jobs at newspapers and radio stations.

In 1939, he was hired to be a war correspondent by the United Press wire service. As World War II intensified, the newly married Cronkite departed for Europe to cover the conflict.

Formative Experience: World War II

By 1942, Cronkite was based in England, sending dispatches back to American newspapers.

He was invited into a special program with the U.S. Army Air Force to train journalists to fly aboard bombers. After learning basic skills, including firing the airplane's machine guns, Cronkite flew aboard an Eighth Air Force B-17 on a bombing mission over Germany.

The mission turned out to be extremely dangerous. A correspondent from the New York Times, Robert P. Post, who was flying on another B-17 during the same mission, was killed when the bomber was shot down. (Andy Rooney, a correspondent for Stars and Stripes and a future CBS News colleague of Cronkite, also flew on the mission and, like Cronkite, made it back to England safely.)

Cronkite wrote a vivid dispatch about the bombing mission which ran in a number of American newspapers. In the New York Times of February 27, 1943, Cronkite's story appeared under the headline "Hell 26,000 Feet Up."

On June 6, 1944, Cronkite observed the D-Day beach assaults from a military plane. In September 1944, Cronkite covered the airborne invasion of Holland in Operation Market Garden by landing in a glider with paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division. Cronkite covered the fighting in Holland for weeks, often putting himself at considerable risk.

At the end of 1944, Cronkite covered the German offensive that turned into the Battle of the Bulge. In the spring of 1945, he covered the end of the war. Given his wartime experiences, he probably could have gotten a contract to write a book, but he chose to keep his job at United Press as a correspondent. In 1946, he covered the Nuremberg Trials, and following that he opened a United Press bureau in Moscow. 

In 1948. Cronkite was back in the United States. He and his wife had their first child in November 1948. After years of travel, Cronkite began gravitating to a more settled life, and began to seriously think about jumping from print journalism to broadcasting.

Early TV News

In 1949 Cronkite began working for CBS Radio, based in Washington, D.C. He covered the government; a focus of his job was to broadcast reports to stations located in the Midwest.

His assignments were not very glamorous, and tended to focus on agricultural policy of interest to listeners in the heartland.

When the Korean War began in 1950, Cronkite wanted to return to his role as an overseas correspondent. But he found a niche in Washington, delivering news about the conflict on local television, illustrating troop movements by drawing lines on a map. His wartime experience seemed to give him a certain confidence on the air, and viewers related to him.

At that time, TV news was in its infancy, and many influential radio broadcasters, including even Edward R. Murrow, the legendary star newsman of CBS Radio, believed television would be a passing fad. Cronkite, however, developed a feel for the medium, and his career took off. He was essentially pioneering the presentation of news on television, while also dabbling in interviews (once taking a tour of the White House with President Harry S. Truman) and even filling in as the host of a popular game show, "It's News to Me."

The Most Trusted Man in America

In 1952, Cronkite and others at CBS put serious effort into presenting, live on the air, the proceedings of both major party political conventions from Chicago. Before the conventions, CBS even offered classes for politicians to learn how to appear on television. Cronkite was the teacher, giving points on speaking and facing the camera. One of his students was a Massachusetts congressman, John F. Kennedy.

On election night in 1952, Cronkite anchored CBS News' coverage live from a studio at Grand Central Station in New York City.

Sharing the duties with Cronkite was a computer, Univac, which Cronkite introduced as an "electronic brain" that would help tally votes. The computer mostly malfunctioned during the broadcast, but Cronkite kept the show moving along. CBS executives came to recognize Cronkite as something of a star. To viewers across America, Cronkite was becoming an authoritative voice. In fact, he became known as "the most trusted man in America."

Throughout the 1950s, Cronkite reported regularly on CBS News programs. He developed an early interest in America's early space program, reading anything he could find about newly developed missiles and plans to launch astronauts into space. In 1960, Cronkite seemed to be everywhere, covering the political conventions and serving as one of the journalists asking questions at the final Kennedy-Nixon debate.

On April 16, 1962, Cronkite began anchoring the CBS Evening News, a position he would hold until he chose to retire in 1981. Cronkite made sure he wasn't merely the anchorman, but the managing editor of the newscast. During his tenure, the broadcast expanded from 15 minutes to a half-hour. On the first program of the expanded format, Cronkite interviewed President Kennedy on the lawn of the Kennedy family house at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The interview, conducted on Labor Day 1963, was historically important as the president seemed to be adjusting his policy on Vietnam. And it would be one of the last interviews with Kennedy before his death less than three months later.

Reporting on Key Moments in American History

On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, Cronkite was working in the CBS newsroom in New York City when bells indicating urgent bulletins began ringing on teletype machines. The first reports of a shooting near the president's motorcade in Dallas were being transmitted via wire services.

The first bulletin of the shooting broadcast by CBS News was voice-only, as it took time to set up a camera. As soon as it was possible, Cronkite appeared live on the air. He gave updates on the shocking news as it arrived. Nearly losing his composure, Cronkite made the grim announcement that President Kennedy had died from his wounds. Cronkite stayed on the air for hours, anchoring the coverage of the assassination. He spent many hours on the air in the following days, as Americans engaged in a new sort of mourning ritual, one conducted via the medium of television.

In the following years, Cronkite would deliver news about the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, riots in American cities, and the Vietnam War. After visiting Vietnam in early 1968 and witnessing the violence unleashed in the Tet Offensive, Cronkite returned to America and delivered a rare editorial opinion. In a commentary delivered on CBS, he said that, based on his reporting, the war was a stalemate and a negotiated end should be sought. It was later reported that President Lyndon Johnson was shaken to hear Cronkite's assessment, and it influenced his decision not to seek a second term.

One big story of the 1960s that Cronkite loved to cover was the space program. He anchored live broadcasts of rocket launches, from projects Mercury through Gemini and to the crowning achievement, Project Apollo. Many Americans learned how the rockets operated by watching Cronkite give basic lessons from his anchor desk. In an era before TV news could utilize advanced special effects, Cronkite, handling plastic models, demonstrated the maneuvers that were being performed in space.

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, a nationwide audience watched the grainy images on television. Many were tuned into CBS and Walter Cronkite, who famously admitted, after seeing Armstrong make his famous first step, "I'm speechless."

Later Career

Cronkite continued covering the news through the 1970s, anchoring events such as Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War. On a trip to the Middle East, he interviewed Egyptian president Sadat and Israeli prime minister Begin. Cronkite was given credit for inspiring the two men to meet and eventually forge a peace treaty between their countries.

For many, the name Cronkite was synonymous with the news. Bob Dylan, in a song on his 1975 album "Desire," made a playful reference to him:

"I was sittin' home alone one night in L.A.

Watching old Cronkite on the seven o'clock news..."

On Friday, March 6, 1981, Cronkite presented his final newscast as an anchorman. He chose to end his tenure as anchor with little fanfare. The New York Times reported that he had spent the day, as usual, preparing the newscast.

In the following decades, Cronkite appeared often on television, at first doing specials for CBS, and later for PBS and CNN. He remained active, spending time with a wide circle of friends that came to include artist Andy Warhol and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Cronkite also kept with his hobby of sailing in the waters around Martha's Vineyard, where he had long kept a vacation home.

Cronkite died at the age of 92 on July 17, 2009. His death was front-page news across America. He is widely remembered as a legendary figure who created and embodied a golden age of television news.

Walter Cronkite Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Walter Cronkite
  • Known For: Anchorman and pioneer of television news.
  • Born: December 4, 1916 in St. Joseph, Missouri, USA
  • Died: July 17, 2009 in New York City, New York, USA
  • Spouse's Name: Mary Elizabeth "Betsy" Maxwell Cronkite
  • Children: Walter Leland III, Nancy Elizabeth, and Mary Kathleen

Sources

  • Brinkley, Douglas. Cronkite. Harper Perennial, 2013.
  • Martin, Douglas. “Walter Cronkite, 92, Dies; Trusted Voice of TV News.” New York Times, 17 July 2009, p. 1.
  • Cronkite, Walter. "Hell 26,000 Feet Up." New York Times, 17 February 1943, p. 5.