The Most Trusted Man in America: 

That’s the Way it Was


 By Sanford Socolow


CBS News

Walter Cronkige, iconic CBS anchorman and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News,” who presided for more than a generation over the transformative and turbulent events of American history with grace and reassurance.


CBS News

Etched deeply into our memories, Walter Cronkite announcing the death of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.







Walter Cronkite’s interview with President John F. Kennedy in September of 1963, two months before his assassination.




By Sanford Socolow


            I am continually amazed at the recognition and praise for Walter Cronkite since it has been 28 years since he left his dominant position as most famous news personality except, perhaps, for Edward Murrow.   That means that most Americans alive today never experienced him, except for occasional cameo appearances after he left the daily television scene.  When he stepped down as anchorman/reporter, his ratings were higher than the combined ratings of the three network news broadcasts and all internet and cable newscasts at the same evening hour.


        The Most Trusted Man in America always thought of himself as a basic wire service reporter.  He had a history with United Press before he joined CBS News, at a time when CBS News required that new hires have at least five years of writing or reporting experience.   The theory behind that requirement: CBS News could teach the techniques of broadcasting but could not duplicate the reportorial experience necessary.


        Fans of The Most Trusted Man in America usually want to know “what was he really like?”  The disappointing answer is that he was really like he was on television and maybe that is why he was trusted and appreciated.  By that I mean “Uncle Walter,” off screen, wasn’t the opposite of his benign image.  Of course, he could be a demanding taskmaster and there were many tough talks between him and his staff.


        Once, when I was Executive Producer of The Evening News, I was invited to a screening  of “The China Syndrome,” a movie with an uncanny echo of the Three Mile Island Nuclear accident, in which radioactivity was feared all over central Pennsylvania.  The similarities, I thought, were dramatic, since the movie was two years in the making.  Walter was also invited to the screening but skipped it because of a schedule conflict.  In his office, I explained my amazement, and told him I thought we should do a sidebar story about this movie/real life coincidence, since the Three Mile Accident was dominating news coverage.  Without slipping a beat, he shouted at me, “I am not in the business of selling tickets to some damned movie!”  Contrast that to what we see on our video newscasts today.


When it was suggested he become anchorman of The Evening News, he demanded the title, “Managing Editor.”  He told me it was a deal breaker, as far as he was concerned, unless he got it.  The title gave him (with management agreement) final say on what stories The Evening News would carry and even how they were presented.   In my memory, there never was any sort of important disagreement between him and staff.  Remember, when he started, the staff and the Managing Editor had similar backgrounds and outlooks about what a daily newscast should be.  


Now, of course, all anchorpersons, network and local, have the title.  I often wonder if they understand what the title represented when it was adopted from newspapers to television.


When Cronkite, a veteran print reporter, first appeared on the then 15 minute CBS Evening News, he ended the newscast telling viewers (paraphrase): “Those are the news highlights.  Be sure to read your daily newspaper for the details.”


It raised a storm with corporate executives, who saw it as an invitation for viewers (and subsequently, advertisers) to leave their television sets and go to newspapers for their news.  After lots of tough talk, back and forth, Walter agreed to back away from that sign off.  That’s how his famous sign off, “And that’s the way it is,” was born.  Even that sign off caused a tempest between Walter and Dick Salant, then president of CBS News, who insisted we were NOT telling the audience “The Way It Is,” because we couldn’t do it in an eight minute (of a 15 minute broadcast) news hole.  Salant was persuaded to go along with it.


Walter is father of three and grandfather of four.  His third grandson, Walter Leland Cronkite IV, is an intern in the CBS News Washington Bureau, where Walter (“Jr,” his father was a dentist) started his CBS News career.  Anchorman Cronkite’s first assignment, after being hired by Edward R. Murrow, then the corporate executive in charge of CBS News, was anchor (the title had not yet been applied) of the 11 p.m. newscast at WTOP-TV in Washington.  The station was then owned by CBS, and Murrow had responsibility for the various local, as well as network, news operations.  The Korean War was in full fury and Walter decided to do a chalk talk about the daily battle lines. This was possible since it was perhaps the last “conventional” war (as opposed to guerilla wars). Each night they would stretch a heavy paper map on a stretcher with broad outlines of the current situation.  As Walter described the day’s actions, a stagehand, invisible behind the paper screen, would touch a lighted cigar to the appropriate spot.  This lasted until the fire department noticed, and shut it down.  This was an era in which television news was so new (and still so junior to radio news) that  production techniques were being invented on an ad hoc basis.


Back to the question about Walter’s real persona, he had a ribald sense of humor.  At staff Christmas parties at his home, he would dance a mock strip tease, based on his memories of a famous 1930s mid-Western strip tease artiste, Hinda Wasser.  Walter had a crush on Ms Wasser.  He mimicked her body movements to an amazing degree.  


He played, or tried to play, a clarinet, not very well.  He was an avid dancer.  Dining with him and Betsy, his beloved wife, was always a chore, as he became more famous.  Other patrons without restraint would come to his table and ask for conversation or an autograph.  Walter was unfailingly polite and accommodating.  But more disruptive to his dinner mates, was his tendency to engage the intruder in conversation,  asking about background and geography and showing genuine interest beyond the call of politeness.


And, finally, there was his dedication to the craft and his belief in its importance if democracy was to work.   After he retired from The Evening News, he “came out of the closet,” as he put it, and showed his liberal colors.  He was dismayed  that after the September 11th tragedy, the White House had a meeting with  television news executives, who agreed they would not broadcast the Osama bin Laden videos which were being widely distributed elsewhere at the time.  On the other hand, he was dismayed (for many other reasons also) when the Democratic Party establishment pressed him to run for the Senate in the 1960s, but never once asked him what his position was on various public issues of the day.


Chances for the emergence of another such dominating figure in the news universe are low.  The proliferation of news outlets and subsequent fracturing of the audience make it more difficult, maybe impossible.  That’s the way it is.


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