Walter Cronkite outlived the length of his tenure in the anchor chair at “CBS Evening News,” a fact that provided dozens of opportunities for perspective and retrospective. A generation has never seen him deliver an evening news broadcast, live, but many of these clips are now such iconic parts of 20th century history that his take on events are destined to stand the test of time.
Interview with President John F. Kennedy, Sept. 2, 1963.
Cronkite had been in the anchor chair just over a year when he interviewed Kennedy at his home in Hyannisport. Kennedy talks about civil rights, the economy and the situation in Vietnam. Kennedy’s answers about the latter have been often cited by historians as evidence that he would not have escalated the war had he lived. “In the final analysis, it’s their war,” the president says. The interview also was an example of Cronkite’s determination to make the anchor role more than that of newsreader but of someone who would travel outside the studio in pursuit of a story — or what is now known as the big “get.”
Death of President Kennedy, Nov. 22, 1963
Cronkite had been standing near the wire service machines when the bulletin first flashed that shots had been fired at the president in Dallas, Texas. But cameras were not ready, forcing Cronkite to interrupt “As the World Turns” with audio only over a bumper slide. Twenty minutes later, he went on the air, sans jacket, and delivered ever-more grim updates. Forty minutes after that, he announced that the president had died. Cronkite cleared his throat, coughed, removed his glasses and put them on again, and paused, a mixture of restraint and raw emotion that would characterize his tenure.
Vietnam Commentary, Feb. 27, 1968
Following the Tet Offensive, Cronkite stepped outside his normal role to deliver a commentary about the war in Vietnam, concluding that it would end in “either real give and take negotiations, or terrible escalation.” For years to come, conservative groups would cite the commentary as proof of liberal media bias, but Cronkite’s status as the most trusted man in America went untarnished. After the newscast, President Johnson was reported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Cronkite later wrote, “I think it is possible that the president shared my opinion, and that, in effect, I had confirmed it for him.” Clip here, and transcript here.
Martin Luther King Assassination, April 4, 1968
Just weeks later, Cronkite delivered the news about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “That night I was awakened by the sirens and the red glow in my hotel room as, a few blocks away, Washington’s downtown black district was set ablaze. That conflagration turned out to be a fire bell in the night, herald of the many urban riots that would char our national conscience.”
Democratic National Convention, Aug. 27, 1968
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley stacked the convention floor with a security team, whose intent was “to keep peace that would best serve Daley’s agenda,” Cronkite later wrote. But when they roughed up Dan Rather, who was in the midst of trying to interview delegates, Cronkite reacted indignantly. “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.” Cronkite later wrote, “My temper and objectivity snapped.” Clip here.
Man on the Moon, July 20, 1969
“Oh, boy! Whew! Boy!” Cronkite said as the Eagle settled gently on the moon’s surface. For the rest of his life, Cronkite would call the landing “the one event that will dominate the history books a half a milennium from now.” Perhaps it is fitting that his passing comes on the 40th anniversary of the first manned mission to the lunar surface. He yearned to go into space himself, but later in life quipped after the Challenger disaster that he “feared my plumbing would go before NASA fixed theirs.”
Watergate Report, Oct. 27, 1972
At Cronkite’s insistence, the evening newscast devoted 14 minutes to the Watergate scandal, in a report that broke no new ground but, by its length and comprehension, helped elevate the so-called “third rate burglary to the top of the national agenda. Outside of the Washington Post, few news outlets gave the story that much play. After Cronkite pieced the elements together, they could ignore it no longer. The Nixon White House objected, and part two of the report was trimmed, but the damage was done. Clip here.
Breaking News of Lyndon Johnson’s Death, Jan. 22, 1973
Cronkite broke form during the evening newscast and answered a phone call. It was Tom Johnson, an aide to Lyndon Johnson, telling the anchor that the former president had just passed away. Johnson would later become the president of CNN.
Interview with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, Nov. 14, 1977
Cronkite insisted that he “did not deserve the praise and glory heaped upon me” for bringing the president of Egypt and the prime minister together, conducting an interview in which the two were shown agreeing to an historic meeting in Jerusalem. He credited luck, personality and good timing. The press called it “Cronkite diplomacy,” and William Safire wrote that “it took Walter Cronkite of CBS, placing
an electronic hand on the backs of Israel and Egypt, to bring them together.” Transcript here.
Final Words for CBS’s Anniversary, April 1, 1978
Cronkite delivers a history of television, in a piece written by the poet laureate of radio, Norman Corwin, for “CBS: On the Air,” a weeklong salute to the network’s 50th anniversary.