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Overview for Walter Cronkite
Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite


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Also Known As: Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. Died: July 17, 2009
Born: November 4, 1916 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: St. Joseph, Missouri, USA Profession: Editing ... news anchor writer reporter


Known as Uncle Walter to millions of Americans, and "Old Iron Pants" to his former colleagues, anchorman Walter Cronkite was the face of "The CBS Evening News" (1948- ) for 19 years. In that time, Cronkite was a reassuring presence in the face of the greatest - and often tragic - events of the 20th century. From his start as a wire reporter for the United Press during World War II, Cronkite cultivated a reputation for delivering clean, unembellished news that was bolstered by an intense drive to fact-check every detail. Though at first reluctant to make the switch from print to the burgeoning world of television in the early 1950s, Cronkite became one of the pioneers of onscreen journalism, often creating the methods of reporting later generations of television reporters took for granted. When he became the anchor of CBS News in 1962, Cronkite had a unique viewpoint from which to observe one of the country's most turbulent times, reporting on the assassination of a president, a destructive war overseas and the eventual resignation of another president. Through it all, America looked to Uncle Walter for comfort and unnerving perspective, making Cronkite the "most trusted man" in America for over half a century.

Born on Nov. 4, 1916 in St. Joseph, MO, Cronkite was raised in a solid middle class home - both his father, Walter Sr., and his grandfather were dentists, while his mother, Helen, was a homemaker. Ever since he was six years old, when he ran down the street with a copy of The Kansas City Star announcing the death of President Warren G. Harding, Cronkite wanted to be a newsman. After his family moved to Houston, TX, Cronkite took his first strides into journalism by writing articles for the Purple Pup at Sidney Lanier Middle School; later writing for the newspaper and working on the yearbook at San Jacinto High School. He attended the University of Texas in 1933, where wrote for The Daily Texan while simultaneously working for the Houston Press as their campus correspondent. Cronkite also made his first foray into radio broadcasting by delivering mid-afternoon baseball scores for KNOW. But his varied journalistic commitments kept him from regularly attending classes and Cronkite withdrew from school in 1935, a decision he later regretted the rest of his life.

In 1936, Cronkite moved back to Kansas City, MO, where he took a job doing news and sports for KCMO. At the station, he soon met Betsy Maxwell, a fellow broadcaster whom he married a few years later in 1940. During his time in Kansas City, Cronkite was witness to the first of numerous substantial historical events - the devastating dust storms that swept through the Midwest from 1930-36, caused by severe droughts and forcing many farmers - the famed Okies - to push west in search of a fresh start. Kansas City proved to be the first stopping point for the farmer's migration to California. Cronkite left KCMO in 1937 to return to his first love - newspapers - working for the United Press Wire Service. His first big story came that same year when he was the first reporter on the scene of a massive gas explosion at a school that killed 425 children. The story captured the country's attention for several days and gave Cronkite one of his first major national stories.

Cronkite was with United Press when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the United States into World War II. Shortly after the attack, he was reassigned by the wire service to their New York office, then aboard the Battleship Texas, where he saw his first combat action while escorting tankers and freighters in the North Atlantic - several freighters in their convoy were sunk by Nazi warships. Cronkite was then present for the Allied landing in North Africa. Since he was the first reporter back from the front, Paramount Pictures asked Cronkite to do a newsreel for them, giving him his first on-camera experience. But his experiences in World War II were far from over. In 1943, he was one of six correspondents who flew in a B-17 Flying Fortress with the Eighth Air Force during the first bombing runs over Germany. He climbed aboard another B-17 for the Invasion of Normandy, flying fairly low over Omaha Beach, but failed to see much action due to thick cloud cover. His plane returned to London still loaded with its deadly cargo after failing to find a suitable target.

When the war was over, Cronkite covered the landmark Nuremburg Trials in 1945-46, an event that left an indelible mark on him, particularly in regard to the atrocities committed in concentration camps. From Nuremburg, Cronkite was assigned by United Press to Moscow during the outbreak of the Cold War. A couple of years later, he returned home and was sent by United Press on a speaking tour, where he declared that the Soviets would never get the atomic bomb, only to be caught flat-footed when newspaper headlines suddenly screamed that the Russians had indeed exploded one. In 1950, Cronkite was back in Washington, D.C. reporting for a string of Midwestern radio stations when he received a call from Edward R. Murrow asking him to join CBS during the first days of television news. Murrow had previously asked Cronkite to work for him when the two knew each other in London during the war. But Cronkite decided to stay with United Press. This time, however, Cronkite - who by then had a young family to consider - accepted the assignment and his television career was born.

At the dawn of television news, Cronkite was in the midst of covering the time's biggest events while pioneering the medium with his colleagues. Working with remote crews and satellites were completely foreign in the early days, forcing Cronkite and his contemporaries to make it up as they went along. Meanwhile, television cameras were brought into places previously never seen by the American public - namely the White House, where Cronkite was given a tour by President Harry Truman in 1952. Also that year, Cronkite became a household name with his coverage of the presidential political conventions, the first to be nationally televised. The term anchorman was coined in relation to Cronkite's central role in keeping the network's coverage running smoothly, much like a relay team's anchorman brings the race to the finish line. Meanwhile, the Swedish for many years called their own news desk reporters "Cronkiters." Other significant news stories of the time were a live feed of a nuclear test at Yucca Flats and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. These occasions only marked the beginning of Cronkite's presence at momentous historical events.

In the early 1950s, Cronkite was asked by CBS to anchor a new morning show to rival a similar variety program being aired on NBC. For a time, he shared the screen with several puppets, including Charlemane the Lion, an indignity most news people would have frowned upon. Cronkite also served as host to another experimental show, "You Are There" (CBS, 1953-57), a reenactment series that covered famous historical events like the assassination of Julius Caesar, the burning of Joan of Arc, and the sinking of the Titanic. He also hosted "The 20th Century" (CBS, 1957-1970), a long-running documentary program that used archival footage and personal testimony to recreate historical events, a template that presaged many similar network and cable shows in the decades to follow. Despite his side projects, the news remained his primary focus. Cronkite was again at the cusp of history, covering the Korean War, the race against the Soviets to send manned missions into space and the Eisenhower Administration. The prosaic 1950s, however, foreshadowed little of the turbulence in the decade that would follow.

When the country was looking to elect a new president in 1960, their choice was between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy. Cronkite decided to conduct interviews with the candidates composed of impromptu questions - neither would be given a list ahead of time in order for Cronkite to get a more honest reaction. He first sat down with Nixon and had a great difficulty penetrating his rough veneer. For his last question, Cronkite asked Nixon what he though qualified him to be president. Unfazed, Nixon answered with ease. The following week, Cronkite sat down with Kennedy and asked a set of different questions, with the exception of the last one, which was the same he asked Nixon. But Kennedy flubbed his answer. After the interview, Kennedy requested a do-over, which Cronkite refused to grant. But Kennedy remained steadfast, demanding that he do the interview over, even agreeing to allow Cronkite to inform viewers that the interview was indeed redone. Cronkite reluctantly agreed, but told Kennedy that his request was the poorest display of sportsmanship he had seen in his life. As Cronkite was leaving, Kennedy immediately changed his mind and told Cronkite to run the interview as shot.

In 1962, Cronkite succeeded Douglas Edwards to become the anchor for the "CBS Evening News" (1948- ), a position he would hold for almost 20 years. His rise from correspondent to anchor chair had been long and steady, but once he reached the top, Cronkite - already one of the most widely recognized and trusted journalists on television - would become synonymous with the word "news." In September 1963, Cronkite had the opportunity to interview Kennedy once again. Sitting on the front lawn of the famed Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, MA, Cronkite quizzed the young president on many issues of the day, including the growing war in Vietnam. Kennedy famously said that the war could not be won without the support of the people. "In the final analysis," he said, "It's their war. They're the ones who have to win it or lose it." Just two months later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX. Cronkite was one of several anchors covering the tragic event, but was forever remembered for his emotional reaction to confirming that the president had been killed. With eyes blurred by tears, Cronkite repeatedly removed his thick horn-rimmed glasses in an effort to maintain composure while reporting the details of Kennedy's death. Because he displayed humanity over professionalism, Cronkite comforted millions of Americans grieving in one of the nation's most painful moments.

Over the next several years, Cronkite's news show was in direct competition with the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" (NBC, 1956-1970), which remained in first place in the ratings until the late-1960s. Meanwhile, Cronkite continued his string of reporting momentous historical events. In 1968, he spent two weeks in Vietnam at the beginning of the Tet Offensive, a failed Communist uprising that nonetheless shocked the U.S. government and the American people for its ferocity and magnitude. Cronkite filmed a series of objective news reports, which were aired upon his return. But in the last segment of his report, he decided to insert a final commentary in which he declared that the war was mired in stalemate, suggesting that the best course of action would be to negotiate a peace settlement and clear the field. It was later reported that President Lyndon Johnson said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." A month later, Johnson withdrew his contention for a second term as president. Meanwhile, the turbulence of 1968 continued unabated with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Inside the convention, future CBS anchor Dan Rather was punched in the stomach and pushed to the ground by security, causing Cronkite to remark, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan."

Despite the numerous tragedies of the decade, Cronkite was at the forefront of a positive event in 1969 - the landing of the first manned spacecraft on the moon. Though he had about as much time to prepare his reaction as NASA did to actually land the craft, Cronkite was speechless when the event occurred live on July 20, 1969. With a smile on his face and hands rubbing together in excitement, the best Cronkite could manage was "Oh, boy!" His embrace of what he later called one the great stories of the century was felt by all who watched his broadcast. Meanwhile, he earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Coverage of Special Events. Once the 1970s came about, Cronkite's broadcast was the most watched in America. He was one of the first anchors to regularly cover the Watergate scandal, though he failed to break significant new ground. He did, however, earn another Emmy Award, this time for Outstanding Achievement With Regularly Scheduled News Programs. In 1974, Cronkite made a rare appearance on the entertainment side of television, making a cameo as himself in an episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-77). Unfortunately, Cronkite's appearance was shot in one take, leaving him no opportunity to chat with the cast.

With the ascendancy of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Cronkite - by then 65 years old - decided it was time to retire. On March 6, 1981, he signed off from CBS for the last time, marking the end of an era that remained unmatched by any anchor since. Cronkite had long planned his retirement, but still felt sadness leaving the network he had represented for over 30 years. He ended the broadcast as he had so many times before, with his famous tagline "And that's the way it is." Cronkite did assure his viewers before signing off that he would still be in their living rooms from time to time, reporting events in taped specials and documentaries. But once he was gone, CBS management was promptly replaced and many of the projects promised him by the previous administration were scratched by the newcomers, leaving Cronkite bitter for years to come. While he remained the host of "Walter Cronkite's Universe" (CBS, 1979-1982), a 30-minute chronicle on the complexities of modern life, the short-lived program marked one of his last regular series.

Almost from the beginning of his retirement, Cronkite regretted leaving the network, even though he had planned the decision for a long time. But he did remain a viable presence both on and off camera, regularly appearing in made-for-TV specials like "Cronkite Remembers" (Discovery Channel, 1997), an eight-part series recounting the great events of the 20th century through his career that won a CableACE award for Best Documentary Series, and writing columns for King Features Syndicate, a print syndication company that distributed content to nearly 5,000 newspapers across the globe. He also hosted a long stretch of one-episode specials throughout the ensuing decades that covered everything from terrorism and Vietnam to the American healthcare crisis and the country's disastrous War on Drugs. Cronkite also continued making the occasional cameo appearance as himself on entertainment programs, including an episode of "Murphy Brown" (CBS, 1988-1998). Even well into his 80s and 90s, Cronkite was active on television, making cable documentaries that looked back on historical events like D-Day and personalities like Lady Bird Johnson. Then in 2005, his wife Betsy died in New York due to complications from her battle with cancer, just weeks short of the couple's 65th wedding anniversary. She was 89. In June 2009, Cronkite himself was reported to be gravely ill with cerebrovascular disease and was not expected to recuperate. Just a few weeks later, on July 17, Cronkite passed away in his New York home surrounded by family and friends. He was 92. "And that's the way it is."

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