Walter Cronkite, Legendary Newsman Dies at Age 92

Cronkite's journalism career spanned more than four decades.

June 12, 2009, 11:34 AM

July 17, 2009— -- Walter Leland Cronkite, a legendary reporter and anchorman who was once voted the "most trusted man in America," died today at age 92.

The man who anchored the "CBS Evening News" from 1962 to 1981 died of cerebral vascular disease at 7:42 p.m. ET in his New York City home surrounded by his family, Cronkite's longtime chief of staff, Marlene Adler, told The Associated Press.

"Walter was always more than just an anchor," President Obama said this evening in a prepared statement. "He was someone we could trust to guide us through the most important issues of the day; a voice of certainty in an uncertain world. He was family. He invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down."

Cronkite became best known on CBS News during the 1960s when he established the prominent role of the television news anchorman for the network's newly expanded evening news program.

"Walter Cronkite set an example for all broadcast journalism by simply doing his best to tell us the truth about things that matter, with courage and without partisanship," ABC News president David Westin said. "We will miss him, but will seek to keep his spirit alive by following his example."

Cronkite was held in such esteem in broadcast journalism that his name became synonymous with "news anchor" around the world. ABC News' anchors mourned the their fellow journalist.

"Walter Cronkite was and always will be the gold standard," said Charles Gibson, anchor of "World News." "His objectivity, his even-handedness, his news judgment are all great examples. He, as much as anyone, is responsible for developing network television news. He set the standard. He told it 'the way it is' and all of us who are privileged to work in this business owe him an enormous debt of gratitude."

"He was the defining anchor of America's story -- reminding us of what we can be at our best," added Diane Sawyer, anchor of "Good Morning America." "He had depth, foreign reporting experience, endless excitement about the news, and an irresistible irreverence. A call, a note, a compliment from Walter was pretty much the Nobel Prize for a young reporter. I am so lucky to know what it was to be part of the Cronkite team."

"There never was and there never will be another Walter Cronkite," said ABC News anchor Barbara Walters. "We trusted him and that trust was well founded. He was also a jolly and supportive friend. He will be missed by each of us individually who knew him and by the whole country who loved him."

Cronkite's clout at his peak was illustrated by President Lyndon Johnson's dismay when Cronkite returned from a trip to Vietnam in 1968 and reported that the U.S. was losing the war.

"If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America," a rattled LBJ was reported to have said.

The anchorman with his trademark avuncular delivery also spoke for America when he delivered the grim news that President Kennedy had died of his wounds. Nearly overcome with emotion, Cronkite paused and took off his glasses while he composed himself.

Cronkite's legacy of being the authoritative voice of news is still heard each night when CBS News uses a recording of Cronkite to introduce CBS Evening News With Katie Couric.

Born Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo., Cronkite was the son of a dentist who moved the family to Houston.

He got an early start in journalism. After graduating from Houston's San Jacinto High School, he enrolled at the University of Texas. The natural newsman, however, was soon spending more time filing stories for his college and local newspapers and area radio stations than attending classes.

After two years in college, Cronkite left school in 1935 to become a full-time reporter for the Houston Post. Within a year, the young Cronkite began working as a correspondent for United Press International (UPI).

Cronkite often said he was inspired by Texas newspaperman Gordon Kent Shearer, who served as bureau chief for UPI in Austin.

During World War II, Cronkite traveled to Europe to cover fighting from the front lines. As a war correspondent, Cronkite earned a reputation as a courageous and tireless reporter, parachuting into Holland with the 101st Airborne Division and talking to soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge.

TV Legend

After the war, Cronkite stayed with UPI, reporting from Europe, the Soviet Union and Washington, D.C. Starting in 1950, Cronkite began work in television journalism at CBS News. His first network jobs were for shows including "The Week in Review" and "You Are There," a show that presented imaginary interviews with historical figures such as Julius Caesar and Joan of Arc.

Cronkite became one of the original creators of "CBS Evening News" and anchored the show's first 30-minute broadcast, featuring an interview with President Kennedy. Cronkite's levelheaded and assuring delivery carried American viewers through the tumultuous events of the 1960s, including the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., and coverage of the Vietnam War.

Many credit Cronkite with helping turn U.S. sentiment against involvement in Vietnam after a special 1968 broadcast during which he candidly reported that America was fighting a losing effort.

Cronkite often talked about the emotion involved in covering news events, particularly his announcement of Kennedy's death, saying in 2001: "It was not until I had to say that the president was dead that it hit me the enormity of what I was reporting. ... I don't blame anybody for showing emotion on the air. I don't think I would trust a reporter, male or female, who didn't show any emotion."

Cronkite's passionate interest in the space program following the 1969 Apollo moon landing also bolstered NASA's public relations efforts to support its explorations.

Cronkite said the moon landing was the favorite of his career.

"The successful landing on the moon, very probably, is the best story," he said in an interview with CNN's Larry King in 2002. "I do think that the success, although still not complete ... in the recognition of equal rights ... to all Americans, regardless of color, creed and so forth, was also one of the best stories we've had to report."

Cronkite had his share of controversy. In 1976, another TV newsman reported that he saw Cronkite's name on the alleged White House list of journalists who had worked for the CIA. An angry Cronkite demanded then-CIA director George H.W. Bush disclose which journalists actually had been CIA agents, essentially learning that two former CBS correspondents worked for the CIA.

Cronkite also cited lack of accountability and corporate ownership as a problem in modern-day journalism.

"I think the concern today is that the ownership of the networks, it does not have the background of clear-cut responsibility in broadcasting that the pioneers had. [I]t's not the fault of anybody in particular, except they've come along in the second and third generation when that responsibility has not been pounded into them as it was with the pioneers," Cronkite said on PBS's "Frontline" in 1999. "[T]heir thinking is, 'How do you maximize profit.' You do it by entertainment, primarily. News is hanging in there still but, unfortunately, as a profit center."

Journalism Role Model

Cronkite retired from CBS in 1981, and that year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.

Despite stepping down as anchorman, Cronkite remained a well-regarded presence in the news business until late in his life. The journalist hosted special broadcasts including "Why in the World?" for the Public Broadcasting System and CBS' Universe.

In 1996, Cronkite published a memoir, "A Reporter's Life," which detailed his career starting as a young wire reporter until his days at CBS News. The book is now seen as a valuable learning tool for young reporters.

In 2004, he wrapped up a yearlong stint writing a newspaper column for King Features Syndicate. Reflecting on his decades-long tenure as CBS' anchorman, he said the work was rewarding but "not entirely satisfactory" because the time limitations of network news rarely allowed in-depth reporting of stories.

Cronkite was almost universally known and broadly admired. In a Roper poll in 1975, 93 percent of Americans correctly identified his profession; that's almost everyone.

In a Harris poll in 1981, 50 percent identified him as their favorite news anchor, out of seven listed by name; the next closest [John Chancellor] was at 12 percent.

In the same poll, anywhere from 81 to 86 percent rated him positively as "somebody you can really trust," as "really caring" about humankind, for balanced reporting overall, and specifically for his coverage of elections and the space program.

Although Cronkite was never hailed as a lofty intellectual, he was highly respected for his trust in the public to glean its own opinions from accurate, objective reporting. For years, Cronkite expressed this philosophy following every CBS evening broadcast with his closing words that became his trademark, "And that's the way it is."

And at the end of his career in 1985, 84 percent in a Roper poll said he'd done an excellent or good job as CBS' longstanding anchor.

Cronkite wrote a total of seven books, and won numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 and Library of Congress "Living Legend" award in 2000. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1984, Arizona State University named its journalism school after the former anchor.

Cronkite's wife of 65 years, Betsy, died in 2005. He is survived by their three children and several grandchildren.

ABC News' Gary Langer contributed to this report.

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