Walter Cronkite


'Most Trusted Man In America' Dies At 92

July 18, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,

Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who was named the "most trusted man in America" in a 1972 poll and came to personify the golden age of network TV news, died Friday. He was 92.

Mr. Cronkite's longtime chief of staff, Marlene Adler, said Mr. Cronkite died at 7:42 p.m. at his Manhattan home surrounded by family. She said the cause of death was cerebral vascular disease.

Known for his avuncular camera presence and fierce commitment to fact-based journalism, Mr. Cronkite was the face and voice that most Americans turned to from 1962 to 1981, when the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite became TV's most influential news franchise.

The Missouri native was so fundamental to the concept of TV news that the word "anchorman" was coined to describe his role at the 1952 national political conventions.

Indicative of Mr. Cronkite's hold on the national audience, in 1968 after a commentary he delivered questioning America's ability to win the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "If we've lost Cronkite, we've lost middle America."

"There will never be another figure in American history who will hold the position Walter held in our minds, our hearts and on the television," CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus said Friday. "We were blessed to have this man in our lives and words cannot describe how much he will be missed by those of us at CBS News and by all of America."

Mr. Cronkite was the "voice of certainty in an uncertain world" who will be truly missed, President Barack Obama said Friday.

There are many reasons why Mr. Cronkite came to hold such an esteemed place in American life. Several have more to do with moments of history and the rise of TV as society's central storyteller than they do with him.

As he acknowledged in a 1996 Baltimore Sun interview, he was to some extent just the right newscaster "sitting in the right desk at the right time."

But there are also good reasons for that perception of integrity and credibility that have everything to do with him. Mr. Cronkite was one of the most successful blends of person and persona in the history of the medium. Even as he became one of TV's first outsized celebrities, the anchor who also served as managing editor of network TV's first half-hour nightly newscast always stayed in touch with the get-it-right reporting roots he learned at the United Press wire service, for which he covered World War II.

"He was by any measure a giant in the business," said Sandy Socolow, who was the CBS News Washington bureau chief during the Cronkite years. "He commanded a bigger audiences than any other major media professional in history. His attraction was trust in what he reported."

Remembering Mr. Cronkite's legendary work at the CBS anchor desk after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and as Neil Armstrong took humankind's first steps on the moon in 1969, Mr. Socolow said, "At the height of his celebrity, he was crowned the most trusted man in America basically because he delivered a newscast - and occasional documentaries - with an air of experience, knowledge and persona that calmed people when there was bad news to report, and elated the audience when the news was good."

"Radio and television newsrooms all over America are filled with reporters and producers, writers and editors who got into journalism for one reason: Walter Cronkite. ... He set standards that we in broadcast journalism still strive to meet today," said Rick Kaplan, executive producer for CBS News. "Walter Cronkite was, quite simply, the best."

Mr. Kaplan's sentiment resonates with Lee Thornton, who was hired by Mr. Cronkite to cover the White House for CBS News and was one of the first African-American correspondents to win that coveted beat.

"Does anybody past the age of the millennials not recognize that Cronkite's era in television news was one of the two or three greatest?" Ms. Thornton said. "That a newsman was widely considered to be and was called the most trusted man in America - given the public perception of journalists today - that's almost incomprehensible."

Ms. Thornton, who now heads the broadcast news program at the University of Maryland, College Park, said, "I show my classes video of Cronkite's famous appearance announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He is in his shirt sleeves because he rushed onto the air, and, of course, he shows emotion - very rare for him or anyone in that day. And it's very moving, even today."

Born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Mo., and raised in Houston, Mr. Cronkite became hooked on journalism in high school, where he served as editor of the student paper and stringer for the Houston Post, he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, A Reporter's Life.

During the Depression, he left the University of Texas before graduating and quickly worked his way through two newspaper jobs before trying his hand at radio news. It was at the Houston Post that he learned "the serious lessons of daily journalism," he said.

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