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Walter Cronkite, longtime CBS anchorman, dies at 92

The 'CBS Evening News' standard-bearer guided a nation through times of turmoil and great achievement. He was long considered 'the most trusted man in America.'

July 18, 2009|Valerie J. Nelson

Walter Cronkite, the television newsman whose steady baritone informed, reassured and guided the nation during the tumultuous 1960s and '70s and who was still regarded as "the most trusted man in America" years after leaving his CBS anchor chair, has died. He was 92.

Cronkite died Friday at his home in New York after a long illness, according to CBS Vice President Linda Mason.

As anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News" from 1962 to 1981, Cronkite exhibited a masterful, disciplined stewardship that helped television news come of age. He was arguably the most respected and recognizable media figure of his time.

"Walter was truly the father of television news," Morley Safer, a correspondent for CBS' "60 Minutes," said in a statement. "The trust that viewers placed in him was based on the recognition of his fairness, honesty and strict objectivity."

For two generations of Americans, Cronkite was a witness to history who also helped shaped perceptions of it. Although he rarely displayed emotion on camera, those moments are seared into the nation's collective consciousness -- Cronkite tearing up while announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy, decrying the "thugs" at the 1968 Democratic National Convention or exclaiming "Go, baby, go!" as Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon 40 years ago this week.

Raised in Missouri and Texas, Cronkite had a comforting Midwestern accent and an everyman likability. He came off as everyone's "Uncle Walter," an image he fostered by leaning back in his chair and fiddling with a pipe at the end of nightly broadcasts. When he signed off the news with "And that's the way it is," many Americans believed him.

President Johnson was watching CBS News in 1968 when Cronkite followed a report critical of the Vietnam War with rare commentary -- the anchor declared the war unwinnable and said the U.S. should pull out.

Johnson reportedly turned to an aide and said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Many observers speculated that this was a major reason Johnson decided not to run for a second term -- and offered to negotiate with the North Vietnamese.

"It was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman," David Halberstam wrote in the 1979 book "The Powers That Be."

So entwined was Cronkite with modern U.S. history that a 1981 New Republic commentary seemed to echo the nation's reaction when the magazine compared his retirement to George Washington's face vanishing from the dollar bill.


Recruited by Murrow

He had been at CBS since 1950, when legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow recruited him for the network's young television division. Cronkite had distinguished himself as a daring World War II correspondent for the United Press wire service who accompanied bombing missions and crash-landed in a glider.

The 1952 Republican National Convention launched Cronkite's career and made clear television's new dominance over radio. The broadcast also popularized an industry term -- "anchorman" -- employed to describe Cronkite's central role in the convention coverage. Within hours, his performance sent an "electric excitement" through the Chicago hall, Gary Paul Gates wrote in the 1978 book "Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News."

Cronkite would go on to anchor more than a dozen political conventions and the elections that followed.

When he saw CBS floor correspondent Dan Rather get punched in the stomach at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Cronkite's voice shook with rage as he said, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan." It was a rare display of undisguised wrath, and Cronkite later said he regretted it because a news anchor should be "above the battle."

At the same convention, Cronkite made what he considered his biggest mistake in television by failing to aggressively interview Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, whose security force's strong-arm tactics had outraged the press corps.


Clarifying the news

Cronkite's "natural decency and cautiousness" prevented him from being a great interviewer, but he was an excellent editor who could synthesize and clarify the news for the masses, Halberstam wrote.

Because Cronkite usually took such pains to appear objective in his reporting, when he did show emotion it seemed to resonate with viewers.

The most famous TV footage of Cronkite shows him delivering the bulletin on the 1963 presidential assassination. After he is handed a wire report, Cronkite pauses to gaze at it, then says, "From Dallas, Texas, the flash -- apparently official -- President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time . . . some 38 minutes ago."

Recalling the scene on a 2007 CBS special in honor of his 90th year, Cronkite choked back tears as he said softly, "Anchormen shouldn't cry."

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