Walter Cronkite was one of the most famous and admired figures in the history of American journalism. With a calm, reassuring manner, he covered many of the 20th century’s most memorable events. His career, which spanned several decades, seemed an indelible part of our cultural sweep. Even at the close of his final broadcast as anchor of the CBS Evening News on March 6, 1981, he smiled and assured his viewers that he would keep reporting: “Old anchormen, you see, don’t fade away, they just keep coming back for more.” Then he concluded with his famous catchphrase, “And that’s the way it is.”
The man with the most trusted name in news was born in middle America, in St. Joseph, Missouri, on November 4, 1916. When he was ten his family moved to Houston, Texas, where Cronkite showed an early affinity for journalism, working as a copyboy and paperboy. As he later recalled, “As far as I know, there were no other journalists delivering the morning paper with their own compositions inside.”
Impatient to start his news career in earnest, Cronkite completed only two years in college before becoming a radio announcer in Oklahoma City, beginning a professional journey which would take him around the country and the world. While working in Kansas City he met and fell in love with a colleague, Mary Elizabeth Maxwell, to whom he would be married for 64 years. They would have three children.
As a reporter with United Press International, he covered World War II on dangerous assignments from North Africa to Normandy. He was “embedded” with American servicemen to a remarkable and courageous degree; as his New York Times obituary noted, “Cronkite was one of eight journalists selected for an Army Air Forces program that took them on a bombing mission to Germany aboard B-17 Flying Fortresses. Mr. Cronkite manned a machine gun until he was ‘up to my hips in spent .50-caliber shells,’ he wrote in his memoir.”
Walter Cronkite started his decades-long connection to CBS in 1950, reporting the news and presenting historical documentaries. In his memorable series, “You Are There,” he would reveal historical events as though they were happening at that moment. Thus, he “covered” such stories as the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Chicago Fire. He concluded each episode by asking viewers, “What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times. And you were there.”
Cronkite’s face and voice are forever remembered from November 22, 1963—the day three gunshots rang out in Dallas, Texas, as President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza. CBS interrupted the soap opera As the World Turns and Cronkite’s calm, disembodied voice was heard delivering the shocking news, “The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.”
He appeared on camera shortly thereafter, in shirtsleeves at his desk, with his then-trademark dark glasses and clipped moustache. “From Dallas, Texas, the flash—apparently official—President Kennedy died at 1 PM, Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.” And then the professional newsman’s façade cracked just a little, and his voice quavered with emotion as he continued, “Vice President Lyndon Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded…presumably he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th president of the United States.”
During the sad days that followed–until the president’s burial–millions of Americans took comfort as he gave voice to their grief. On the 40th anniversary of the assassination, Cronkite reflected, “Americans would share a mass of sounds and images that would remain with them for the rest of their lives. Today, they still seem as real as they did on that weekend four decades ago.” His voice and calming presence were prominent among those sounds and images.
He prided himself on his objectivity, saying in 1973, “I am a news presenter, a news broadcaster, an anchorman, a managing editor, not a commentator or analyst. I feel no compulsion to be a pundit.” But he was not always neutral. Upon his return from war-torn Vietnam in 1968, he observed, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. . .it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.” According to Bill Moyers, President Johnson, who was watching, “flipped off the set and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’”
Even after his 1981 “retirement,” Cronkite reigned for decades thereafter as the most famous elder statesmen in American news and was showered with awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As the years passed, he became more overtly political, voicing his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War and calling for “world government.” Yet Walter Cronkite remained a respected figure until his July 17, 2009, death, at the age of 92. He was a symbol of a different, more trusting age. Faith in American institutions—including the media—has sharply declined since the years when he told confident Americans, “And that’s the way it is.” Few seem to agree about the way it is, or ought to be.
Michael F. Bishop is a writer and historian, and the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.