Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr., (born 1916) was an American journalist and radio and television news broadcaster who became pre-eminent among the outstanding group of correspondents and commentators developed by CBS News after World War II.
Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, the only son of his dentist father and the former Helena Lena Fritsch. While he was still a youngster the family moved to Texas. His reading about the exploits of foreign correspondents inspired his interest in journalism. Preparation for that vocation began with his work on his high school yearbook and newspaper.
In 1933 he entered the University of Texas at Austin and took a part-time job with the Houston Post. This set him on a professional career which led him to abandon college after two years to serve as a general reporter for the Post, a radio announcer in Kansas City, and a sportscaster in Oklahoma City. After that his principal employer for several years was United Press International (UPI), for whom he covered World War II in Europe (1941-1945) and served as chief correspondent at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials (1945-1946) and in Moscow (1946-1948).
Years at CBS
To this point Cronkite was largely unknown to the general public. In 1950 he joined CBS News where two years later he was narrator for "You Are There," a television program in which major historical events were re-created. In 1954 he became narrator of "The Twentieth Century," a monumental television documentary which established Cronkite's recognition with the viewing public. That was reinforced by his quadrennial service as anchor of the CBS coverage of the national political party conventions, which he first covered in 1952. With the exception of the 1964 Democratic convention, he continued this role until his retirement in 1981.
When Cronkite assumed the duties of anchor and editor for the "CBS Evening News" in 1962, NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report" dominated viewer ratings. Gradually the CBS broadcasts gained ground on the renowned team at NBC, which broke up in 1970. From then until his retirement, Cronkite's program was consistently the most popular television news broadcast.
Although the evening news was his main platform, Cronkite maintained his prominence as narrator and correspondent on network specials, including space shots, major documentaries, and extensive interviews with world figures such as Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. After his retirement he continued this role in addition to the intermittent series, "Walter Cronkite's Universe."
For a society that emphasized youthfulness, it was a paradox that as Cronkite grew older his prestige increased. His white hair and moustache gave him a rather distinguished look, although Cronkite's reputation did not rest on appearance. He earned recognition and praise through hard work, a passion for accuracy, and an insistence on impartiality. Underlying that was a life-long competitive spirit that was sublimated before the microphone and camera but manifest in his leisure activities of sailing, tennis, and race car driving.
Among Cronkite's strengths were his believability, accuracy, and impartiality. He was also quite diligent about not becoming part of the story he was reporting. Yet there were memorable instances when he failed to remain completely detached from a story: his obvious emotional reaction when announcing the death of President John Kennedy in 1963; his characterization, on the eve of the 1968 Democratic convention, of the site as a concentration camp; his broadcast pronouncement in 1968, upon returning from Vietnam, that he doubted that U.S. policy for that region could prevail; and his undeniable enthusiasm when Neil Armstrong became the first person on the moon in 1969. Despite his philosophic disclaimer, Cronkite sometimes influenced the news, as in his televised interview with Anwar Sadat that led that Egyptian leader to visit Israel and the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to reciprocate. Inadvertently, Cronkite was a news topic in 1976 when John Anderson, running as an independent presidential candidate, mentioned Cronkite as his likely running mate.
The exceptions notwithstanding, Cronkite raised television news broadcasting to a level of professionalism that was lauded around the world. His credentials as a newspaperman and war correspondent, along with his unwillingness to deviate from a hard news format, demonstrated that acceptance and popularity in television news need not rest on superficiality.
The depth of respect for his work was reflected in the numerous awards he received: the Peabody for Radio and Television and the William Allen White Award for Journalistic Merit, as well as the Emmy. In 1981, during his final three months on the "CBS Evening News," Cronkite received 11 major awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1985 he became the second newsman, after Edward R. Murrow, to be selected for the Television Hall of Fame. At his retirement, Cronkite was the most commonly mentioned person on the "dream list" for lecturers at conventions, clubs, and college campuses.
Post CBS Retirement
After retiring as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," Cronkite served as CBS News special correpondent and on the network's board of directors from 1981 to 1991. He also anchored the CBS News science magazine series "Walter Cronkite's Universe," (1980-82), and from the late 1980s until 1992, hosted "Walter Cronkite's 20th Century", a daily 90-second account of same-day historical events. In 1993 he formed his own production company and produced several award-winning documentaries for The Discovery Channel, PBS, and other networks. One of those, "Cronkite Remembers", was sheduled to air in early 1997 in conjunction with the late 1996 publication of his autobiography, A Reporter's Life. During the 1996 presidential campaign, Cronkite headed efforts to convince networks to offer free television time for presidential candidates. When not making documentaries, Cronkite enjoyed sailing his 48-foot yacht, the "Wynje".
Further Reading on Walter Leland Cronkite Jr
Cronkite tells the story of his years growing up in Kansas City and Houston; his early career working for newspapers, wire services, and radio stations; his time as a war correspondent for UPI; and his years at CBS in his autobiography A Reporter's Life (1997). An excellent overview of Cronkite's work habits, strengths and weaknesses, and rapport with his colleagues is "Uncle Walter," a chapter in Air Time (1978) by Gary Paul Gates. Briefer episodes of a similar vein about Cronkite are in The Powers That Be (1979) by David Halberstam. In Challenge of Change (1971), Cronkite set out his journalistic philosophy. The book is a collection of nine speeches he gave during 1967-1970. Eye on the World (1971) is useful mainly as an example of his editing skills. The volume is largely excerpts from interviews by other CBS newsmen on major topics of that period. Both philosophic and descriptive is his "What It's Like To Broadcast News," Saturday Review (December 12, 1970). South by Southeast (1983) with Ray Ellis and South by Southwest (1971) provide insight into Cronkite's leisure activities, especially sailing. One of Cronkite's daughters, Kathy, recorded her experiences as a child of a celebrity in On the Edge of the Spotlight (1981).