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Walter Cronkite, America's original anchorman, dead at 92

Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who was named the "mosttrusted man in America" in a 1972 poll and came to personify thegolden age of network TV news, died Friday. He was 92.

Mr. Cronkite's longtime chief of staff, Marlene Adler, said Mr.Cronkite died at 7:42 p.m. at his Manhattan home surrounded byfamily. She said the cause of death was cerebral vasculardisease.

Known for his avuncular camera presence and fierce commitment tofact-based journalism, Mr. Cronkite was the face and voice thatmost Americans turned to from 1962 to 1981, when the CBS EveningNews with Walter Cronkite became TV's most influential newsfranchise.

The Missouri native was so fundamental to the concept of TV newsthat the word "anchorman" was coined to describe his role at the1952 national political conventions.

Indicative of Mr. Cronkite's hold on the national audience, in 1968after a commentary he delivered questioning America's ability towin the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "If we'velost Cronkite, we've lost middle America."

"There will never be another figure in American history who willhold the position Walter held in our minds, our hearts and on thetelevision," CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus saidFriday. "We were blessed to have this man in our lives and wordscannot describe how much he will be missed by those of us at CBSNews and by all of America."

Mr. Cronkite was the "voice of certainty in an uncertain world" whowill be truly missed, President Barack Obama said Friday.

There are many reasons why Mr. Cronkite came to hold such anesteemed place in American life. Several have more to do withmoments of history and the rise of TV as society's centralstoryteller than they do with him.

As he acknowledged in a 1996 Baltimore Sun interview, he was tosome extent just the right newscaster "sitting in the right desk atthe right time."

But there are also good reasons for that perception of integrityand credibility that have everything to do with him. Mr. Cronkitewas one of the most successful blends of person and persona in thehistory of the medium. Even as he became one of TV's first outsizedcelebrities, the anchor who also served as managing editor ofnetwork TV's first half-hour nightly newscast always stayed intouch with the get-it-right reporting roots he learned at theUnited Press International wire service, for which he covered WorldWar II.

"He was by any measure a giant in the business," said SandySocolow, who was the CBS News Washington bureau chief during theCronkite years. "He commanded a bigger audiences than any othermajor media professional in history. His attraction was trust inwhat he reported."

Remembering Mr. Cronkite's legendary work at the CBS anchor deskafter the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and asNeil Armstrong took humankind's first steps on the moon in 1969,Mr. Socolow said, "At the height of his celebrity, he was crownedthe most trusted man in America basically because he delivered anewscast -- and occasional documentaries -- with an air ofexperience, knowledge and persona that calmed people when there wasbad news to report, and elated the audience when the news wasgood."

"Radio and television newsrooms all over America are filled withreporters and producers, writers and editors who got intojournalism for one reason: Walter Cronkite. ... He set standardsthat we in broadcast journalism still strive to meet today," saidRick Kaplan, executive producer for CBS News. "Walter Cronkite was,quite simply, the best."

Mr. Kaplan's sentiment resonates with Lee Thornton, who was hiredby Mr. Cronkite to cover the White House for CBS News and was oneof the first African-American correspondents to win that covetedbeat.

"Does anybody past the age of the millennials not recognize thatCronkite's era in television news was one of the two or threegreatest?" Ms. Thornton said. "That a newsman was widelyconsidered to be and was called the most trusted man in America --given the public perception of journalists today -- that's almostincomprehensible."

Ms. Thornton, who now heads the broadcast news program at theUniversity of Maryland, College Park, said, "I show my classesvideo of Cronkite's famous appearance announcing the assassinationof John F. Kennedy. He is in his shirt sleeves because he rushedonto the air, and, of course, he shows emotion -- very rare for himor anyone in that day. And it's very moving, even today."

Born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Mo., and raised in Houston, Mr.Cronkite became hooked on journalism in high school, where heserved as editor of the student paper and stringer for theHouston Post, he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, AReporter's Life.

During the Depression, he left the University of Texas beforegraduating and quickly worked his way through two newspaper jobsbefore trying his hand at radio news. It was at the HoustonPost that he learned "the serious lessons of daily journalism,"he said.

Mr. Cronkite went to work in radio more or less on a whim afterseeing a classified ad in a Kansas City newspaper while visitingrelatives there. Broadcasting under the name Walter Wilcox, hefound more than a job at the Missouri radio station -- he met MaryElizabeth "Betsy" Maxwell, the woman he would marry in 1940. Theyhad three children and were married until her death in 2005, justshort of their 65th anniversary.

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

In 1950, he joined CBS, working for its TV station in Washingtonanchoring a 6 p.m. newscast. Two years later, he was coveringnational political conventions and getting noticed for his strongon-screen presence.

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

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

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

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

It was Mr. Cronkite's good fortune to find his way to the anchordesk of the CBS Evening News in 1962 just as network TV wascoming of age as the dominant media force in American life. He wasalready established as a nightly presence in 1963 when he wassuddenly thrust into the position of helping to lead the nationthrough its first mass ritual of televised mourning after PresidentKennedy's death.

Mr. Socolow, who was one of Mr. Cronkite's most trusted lieutenantsduring the glory years of the newscasts, said Mr. Cronkite was apurist when it came to presenting viewers with facts andinformation rather than opinion.

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

In person, Mr. Cronkite could come off as formal, stiff and evensomewhat self-important. But those who worked with and knew himsaid 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 atsomeone's house and ushered me in, saying, 'There you are. Let mebuy you a drink.' Of course, they weren't selling drinks. It wasjust a charming bit, and it put me at my ease."

For all the credibility and riches he brought CBS, it treated himrather poorly when he stepped down in 1981 at age 65 from theanchor desk with one final "... and that's the way it is." Thenetwork gave him a lavish office and put him on the board ofdirectors. 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 in1986 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 ofhis treatment at the hands of CBS. He said he had hoped for a rolecovering big stories: "But that's not what they wanted," he said inthe 1996 Baltimore Sun interview.

But Mr. Cronkite still had another act in him. He took some of themoney CBS threw at him to stay off its airwaves and in 1993 starteda production company with his son, Chip, and a former CBScolleague, Jonathan Ward. They quickly became a key supplier ofprogramming for the Discovery Channels, based in Maryland. Theirfranchises included: Walter Cronkite Reports, UnderstandingScience and the acclaimed Great Books series.

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

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

Mr. Cronkite, who won a Peabody, three Emmy Awards and thePresidential Medal of Freedom, is survived by his three children:daughters Nancy Elizabeth and Mary Kathleen, and son Walter LelandIII (Chip). Funeral arrangements are uncertain, but CBS hasscheduled 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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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