It's not often that an individual becomes synonymous with a calling, but for those who watched television in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond there is one name indelibly associated with the evening news. It was Walter Cronkite. His death at 92 ends a remarkable life and severs a memorable link to the golden age of network news.
There were, to be sure, other prominent TV newscasters of the period. Indeed, when Mr. Cronkite made his debut on the CBS Evening News on April 16, 1962, the NBC tandem of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were better known, and their nightly broadcast led the ratings. That did not last long.
Mr. Cronkite soon made the evening news time-slot his own. His stick-to-the-facts reporting, authoritative command of language and objectivity quickly won a wide following. National news broadcasts were 15-minutes long when Mr. Cronkite took his chair, but it wasn't long until he turned the CBS broadcast into the nation's first half-hour program. Within a decade, polls consistently showed Mr. Cronkite to be "the most trusted man in America."
His won that appellation through hard work. He was a well-schooled newsman. He started his career at a Texas newspaper, moved to United Press in 1937, covered combat in World War II and served as a chief correspondent at the Nuremberg trials. He joined CBS in 1950 at the behest of Edward R. Murrow, quickly becoming a high-profile member of the network news team.
His work habits were legendary, and he demanded hard work from his staff. He thought of himself as a reporter, not a reader of the news. Even after he gained fame, he often toiled alongside the news gatherers. Many who worked with him called him "Old Ironpants," an affectionate tribute to his high standards and his stamina when in pursuit of a story.
Mr. Cronkite worked hard to present the news in a fair and accurate manner. He realized the limitations of his medium, though. He remained a fan of print news, saying that "broadcast journalism is never going to substitute for print. We cannot cover in depth in a half hour many of the stories required to get a good understanding of the world."
Still, Mr. Cronkite made the most of news in short form. A generation turned to Mr. Cronkite in good times and bad, not believing something to be fact until "Uncle Walter" had assured them that it was so. Thus it is that Americans of a certain age remember his somber announcement that President Kennedy had died in Dallas, his amazement when Americans first stepped onto the moon and his calm reportage during the civil and political upheavals that marked his nearly two decades as CBS anchorman.
His influence was widespread. When he offered a "speculative, personal" opinion critical of the Vietnam war effort, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Some historians date the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam to Mr. Cronkite's broadcast.
It's doubtful the nation or the world ever again will see or hear a TV newsman like Walter Cronkite. That's our loss. He will be missed.