US President Barack Obama led a chorus of tributes, saying: “His rich baritone reached millions of living rooms every night and, in an industry of icons, Walter set the standard by which all others have been judged.”
He added: “Walter was more than just an anchor. He was family. He invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down.”
A byword for dependability, unflappability and objectivity, Cronkite was at his peak in an era before 24-hour news, the internet and Google. News delivered by him was received as if it were gospel. If he said it was so, it was so. From his lips many Americans first heard of the
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assassination of John F Kennedy, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Cuban missile crisis and the Watergate scandal.
Asked in 2006 about his coverage of Kennedy’s assassination, he recalled: “I choked up. I really had a little trouble … my eyes got a little wet … [what Kennedy had represented] was just all lost to us. Fortunately, I grabbed hold before I was actually [crying].” Telling the nation that the president was dead, he added, was about as tough as it gets.
John McCain, the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2008, said Cronkite was one of the most influential newsmen of his time. He said he would never forget the visit he and Cronkite shared to Hanoi on the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. McCain spent five and half years as a Vietcong prisoner of war; Cronkite was a staunch opponent of the war, as he was of the subsequent one in Iraq.
After Cronkite filed a critical report from Vietnam during the Tet offensive, Lyndon Johnson said: “If I’ve lost
Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Among others to pay tribute to Cronkite were many in the industry in which he had a career spanning seven decades. Larry King said: “There will never again – ever – be a newsman who will have that clout. He could change public opinion. No one broadcaster could do that. No-one could touch it.”
Known affectionately as Uncle Walter, Cronkite exuded gravitas and good sense. He was also nicknamed Old Ironpants, in homage to his ability to broadcast for hours on end without a break. He was the first news presenter to be called an “anchor” and he
came to personify the role, training himself to speak at 124 words per minute – 40 below the average American’s rate.
Having dropped out of college and served his apprenticeship as a radio announcer, he was recruited into television news by Ed Murrow, another legendary American presenter and the subject of the 2005 movie Good Night And Good Luck.
During the second world war, Cronkite was one of the top American reporters, covering North Africa and Europe. He was at the Battle of the Bulge and attended the Nuremberg Trials. In the 1950s he became the first TV presenter to report from both the Democratic and Republican party conventions.
In 1962, he succeeded Douglas Edwards as anchorman of CBS’s Evening News. A year later it expanded from 15 to 30 minutes, making Cronkite the anchor of American network television’s first nightly half-hour news programme.
Subsequently, CBS’s news coverage was lauded for its thoroughness and accuracy. Cronkite, meanwhile, was “the predominant news voice in
America.” USA Today said of him: “Few TV figures have ever had as much power as Cronkite did at his height.”
His influence was not confined to news. Among the many other programmes he made was You Are There, which specialised in historical re-enactments. “What sort of a day was it?” he’d ask. “A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our lives … and you were there.”
Born in St Joseph, Missouri, of Dutch ancestry, the son of a dentist, he moved with his family to Texas when he was 10. He edited the school newspaper and, while at university, worked on the Daily Texan. Cronkite anchored the CBS News until 1981, signing off each night with the words, “and that’s the way it is.” He died of complications from dementia.