By 1942, Mr. Cronkite was in Europe covering the war for UPI. A first-person report he wrote of one raid over Dresden, Germany, was long a staple of university journalism education by nature of its inclusion in the Treasury of Great Reporting anthology.

In 1950, he joined CBS, working for its TV station in Washington anchoring a 6 p.m. newscast. Two years later, he was covering national political conventions and getting noticed for his strong on-screen presence.

But network TV was in its infancy then, and neither the founder of CBS, William Paley, nor his news executives yet foresaw the archetype that Mr. Cronkite would become and the fortunes he would make for the company. His next job in 1954 took him to New York as host of The Morning Show, a perennial loser for CBS to this day compared with NBC's Today show.

One of his duties on that show was to "chat" with a puppet named Charlemagne about the news of the day.

Typical of the seriousness with which Mr. Cronkite always seemed to take himself and his work, he described the puppet talk as "one of the highlights" of the show.

"A puppet can render opinions on people and things that a human commentator would not feel free to utter," he said. "I was and I am proud of it."

It was Mr. Cronkite's good fortune to find his way to the anchor desk of the CBS Evening News in 1962 just as network TV was coming of age as the dominant media force in American life. He was already established as a nightly presence in 1963 when he was suddenly thrust into the position of helping to lead the nation through its first mass ritual of televised mourning after President Kennedy's death.

Mr. Socolow, who was one of Mr. Cronkite's most trusted lieutenants during the glory years of the newscasts, said Mr. Cronkite was a purist when it came to presenting viewers with facts and information rather than opinion.

"He anchored all those years without once tipping his hand on the CBS Evening News about where he personally stood on important questions of the day," Mr. Socolow said. "His famous Vietnam essay was delivered in a distinctive way on a prime-time documentary, not on the Evening News, which was sacrosanct to him as an important vehicle in our democratic society."

In person, Mr. Cronkite could come off as formal, stiff and even somewhat self-important. But those who worked with and knew him said he had a sense of humor and uncommon kindness.

"He could be surprisingly down to earth," Ms. Thornton said, remembering her days as a young reporter among the legends of CBS. "I remember that he once answered the door at a CBS party at someone's house and ushered me in, saying, 'There you are. Let me buy you a drink.' Of course, they weren't selling drinks. It was just a charming bit, and it put me at my ease."

For all the credibility and riches he brought CBS, it treated him rather poorly when he stepped down in 1981 at age 65 from the anchor desk with one final "... and that's the way it is." The network gave him a lavish office and put him on the board of directors. But in the halls of CBS News, the regime headed by Mr. Cronkite's successor, Dan Rather, treated him "like a leper."

It was worse when hotel magnate Laurence Tisch took over CBS in 1986 and started a vicious round of downsizing. He forced Mr. Cronkite off the board altogether in 1990.

"I was terribly disappointed, obviously, and still am," he said of his treatment at the hands of CBS. He said he had hoped for a role covering big stories: "But that's not what they wanted," he said in the 1996 Baltimore Sun interview.

But Mr. Cronkite still had another act in him. He took some of the money CBS threw at him to stay off its airwaves and in 1993 started a production company with his son, Chip, and a former CBS colleague, Jonathan Ward. They quickly became a key supplier of programming for the Discovery Channels, based in Maryland. Their franchises included: Walter Cronkite Reports, Understanding Science and the acclaimed Great Books series.

In that interview 13 years ago, when most newspapers were ignoring the Internet, the then-79-year-old Mr. Cronkite was excitedly expounding on his plans for cyberspace.

"The Internet and programming on demand and all the rest of the new high-tech stuff are all bound to depend on pictures and words, and thus, except perhaps with the respect to the means of delivery, they will resemble the television of my time," said the man whom many Americans affectionately referred to as Uncle Walter. "And what great stories we reporters in the new media are going to have to tell."

Mr. Cronkite, who won a Peabody, three Emmy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is survived by his three children: daughters Nancy Elizabeth and Mary Kathleen, and son Walter Leland III (Chip). Funeral arrangements are uncertain, but CBS has scheduled a prime-time special, That's the Way it Was: Remembering Walter Cronkite, for 7 p.m. Sunday.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.