Happy Birthday

Walter Cronkite, news anchor, Cronkite bio
Jennifer Graylock/AP

Happy Birthday, Walter Cronkite, CBS News Anchor

November 04, 2010
by Jennifer Ferris
To his colleagues, he was “Old Iron Pants,” and to everyone else, he was “The Most Trusted Man in America.” For more than half a century, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite reported, and to a certain extent, made the news, announcing Kennedy’s assassination and the first steps on the moon as well as influencing a more rapid end to the Vietnam War.

Walter Cronkite's Early Days

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Walter Cronkite was born November 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Missouri, the only child of dentist Walter Leland Cronkite and housewife Helena Fritsche. After moving to Kansas City as a very young child, Cronkite got an early start in the news business.

“I’d ride the street car down to the Kansas City Star on Saturday night, stand with all the rest of the young people, and get as many Sunday papers as I could carry, and get back on the street car, go out to the end of the line—which wasn't too far from our house—and then sell papers until I’d made myself ten or 15 cents,” Cronkite said in 1997.

After moving to Texas when he was 10, Cronkite began to believe his future was in mineral mining, until a journalist named Fred Birney founded one of the country’s first high school journalism programs at Cronkite’s school. Birney and a team of students turned the school paper, The Campus Club, into a monthly edition. Cronkite was a sports editor and then chief editor for the paper. During his summers, Cronkite worked as a copy boy for the Houston Post, another opportunity provided by mentor Birney.

Cronkite's Notable Accomplishments

During his freshman year at the University of Texas, Cronkite landed his first paying writing job as a campus correspondent for the Houston Post. Other jobs followed and he dropped out in his junior year to pursue his writing career. In 1939, he joined the United Press news services as a World War II correspondent, a job which brought him to the front lines, parachuting with the 101st Airborne to the Battle of the Bulge, going ashore at D-Day and accompanying bombing missions flown over Germany.

When the war ended, Cronkite stayed in Germany, reporting on the Nuremburg Trials and the start of the Cold War. He was promoted to bureau chief at the UP’s Moscow bureau and began to attract the attention of fellow journalists, such as Edward R. Murrow, who attempted to recruit Cronkite to report for CBS Radio news. In 1950, Cronkite finally relented and went to work for CBS’s rapidly expanding television division.

Cronkite’s early television career had its ups and downs: He covered the 1952 Democratic and Republican presidential conventions, but he also costarred on a morning show with a puppet named Charlemagne. In 1962, Cronkite was offered the anchor spot on the 15-minute-long “CBS Evening News.” Wanting the American public to take the program seriously, he instituted some changes: he expanded the program to 30 minutes and he took the title of managing editor.

His first long-format program in September 1963 included an interview with President John F. Kennedy in September 1963. Two months later, Cronkite had the sad duty of announcing the president’s assassination. After breaking in to “As the World Turns,” the news anchor spent hours on the air, solemnly relating the details of the shooting as they were received by his office. Cronkite cried with the American people that day and as such, earned their trust.

As the events of the next few decades unfolded, Cronkite was always at the news desk, or on location, ready to inform his audience. He covered the space race, presidential politics and the Vietnam War and he unfailingly ended his broadcasts with his famous line, “And that’s the way it is.”
After visiting Vietnam, Cronkite concluded the war was not winnable; he then broke with his tradition of absolutely impartial reporting, and at the end of his newscast, urged a quick resolution to the conflict. President Lyndon B. Johnson responded, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America,” and many attribute his failure to run for reelection as a nod to Cronkite’s stance.

In 1981, after 19 years at the network—during which time he covered moon landings and the Watergate scandal—Cronkite complied with CBS’s mandatory retirement-at-65 policy and signed off the evening news.

The Rest of the Story

Of course, Cronkite didn’t disappear from the screen after his retirement. He continued to do occasional reports for CBS and narrated documentaries. Even his old anchor’s chair was not empty for good; he returned several times to commemorate historic events.

Meanwhile, Cronkite devoted himself to off-screen hobbies. He has a keen interest in amateur radio, and he is an avid sailor. He has also stayed politically active, shedding the required reporter’s impartiality to speak out against the War on Drugs, and the current conflict in Iraq.

On July, 17, 2009, at the age of 92, Walter Cronkite died, a great loss for his field of work. The passing of both Cronkite and respected news anchor Tim Russert in just two years left many wondering if any person in the new wave of journalism could reach the status and respect of news anchors from years past.
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