Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS Evening News anchorman once named the “most trusted” figure in American public life, died Friday of cerebral vascular disease. He was 92 and had been in ill health for some time.
Cronkite, who famously ended his nightly newscasts with the line, “And that’s the way it is,” was a central figure in the development of the 30-minute broadcast network evening newscast as we still know it today. He anchored CBS’ flagship news report from 1962 until 1981, when, at age 65, he was forced out of the seat by the network’s mandatory retirement policy. He was replaced with much younger CBS stalwart Dan Rather.
Born Nov. 4, 1916 in St. Joseph, Mo., Cronkite joined CBS as a reporter in the nascent television news department in 1950 after having distinguished himself as a war correspondent for United Press during World War II. He initially worked at the network’s Washington, D.C., affiliate and was anchor of CBS’ coverage of the 1952 Republican and Democratic national conventions—the first ever televised—and the subsequent presidential election. It was the first of many he would anchor for the network over the ensuing decades.
Cronkite, who hosted the CBS historical reenactment series “You Are There” during its 1953-57 run, was named anchor of the nightly 15-minute “CBS Evening News” telecast in April 1962, replacing Douglas Edwards, who had been the face of the network’s principal newscast since 1948. His paternalistic air of solid credibility quickly earned him a place in the pantheon of news legends, and he was came to be identified by the public as the “most trusted” man in the country in opinion polls.
“CBS Evening News” was stretched to 30 minutes in September 1963. It was two months later that Cronkite broke into the network’s daytime programming with the now-iconic news bulletin announcing the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, during which he was visibly moved to tears.
CBS, by 1964 challenged in the ratings by NBC’s dual-anchor “Huntley-Brinkley Report,” decided not to use Cronkite as anchor of that year’s presidential nomination conventions, using the team of Robert Trout and Roger Mudd instead. Perturbed, Cronkite considered leaving the network for a while, but stuck it out and in 1967 returned to ratings dominance, where he remained until his retirement in 1981.
CBS’ coverage of the Vietnam War during Cronkite’s tenure as anchor and managing editor culminated in his game-changing post-Tet Offensive editorial, which declared “the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate” and urged the U.S. to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese government. The editorial has been credited as playing a key role President Lyndon B. Johnson’s offer to negotiate with the enemy and his decision not to run for re-election in l968.
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” Johnson was quoted as saying at the time.
The Cronkite years at CBS were further defined by his reportage of the Apollo space missions and the Watergate scandal that unseated the Nixon Administration in the 1970s.
He remained active at CBS News after his retirement, involved primarily with special reports, and appeared frequently on television as himself in hosting roles, or as a witness to history.