Once upon a time, he was the most trusted man in America.
Today, at the age of 92, he passed away, one of the last icons of the early days of TV news.
Walter Cronkite defined “anchorman”—literally. He worked for years as a newspaperman and a radio newsman, but it was his jump to TV in 1950 that put him on the path to becoming a household name. His big break came in 1952, when he served as the “anchor” for CBS News’ coverage of the 1952 political conventions.
In 1962, Cronkite made the jump to the studio, replacing Douglas Edwards as the network’s frontman. By the later part of the decade, he’d wrested first place in the ratings from the equally iconic Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, his competitors at NBC.
Looking back at the news of that era—from 1962 until Cronkite retired in 1981—it’s impossible not to associate Cronkite with the top stories of the day. He choked up on when he had to break the news of President Kennedy’s death. He rubbed his hands in glee when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He dealt a death-blow to Lyndon Johnson’s presidency when he delivered an editorial on the Vietnam war. “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,” Johnson said.
Despite his powerful “Tet Editorial” and his unabashed support of the space program, Cronkite believed it was really the media’s job to “hold up the mirror—to tell and show the public what has happened” and keep opinion out.
“The ethics of a…responsible journalist is to put his or her biases, his or her prejudices aside in an attempt to be really fair to all sides at all times,” he said. “And my pride is that I think I did that fairly well during my years.”
The nature of reporting today has changed significantly; Cronkite changed with the times. He blogged occasionally for the Huffington Post, for instance. But overall, he lamented what he saw as the downward-spiraling quality of the news, particularly on television.
“The nation whose population depends on the explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who prey upon the semi-informed,” he wrote in his 1996 memoir. As proof, he later pointed to the debacle of the war in Iraq.
Americans thirty and under are more apt to associate “anchorman” with Ron Burgundy instead of Walter Cronkite. But for people old enough to remember Cronkite, there will never be any anchorman but him. Generations of Americans will ever remember him as the face of television news. He was “Uncle Walter,” the man with the resonate craggy voice and bedrock integrity. He was one of the all-time greats.
I was only eleven when Cronkite retired in March of 1981, but of course I can still remember his sign-off each night: “And that’s the way it is….”
Now it shall be that way no longer.