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Shepard Smith, a Fox News Channel veteran who tried to report events with a down-the-middle attitude despite the network’s political leanings, is leaving the cable-news outlet where he has held forth for years – in an abrupt move that caught even his colleagues by surprise.

Smith was one of the original hires at the Fox Corp.-owned network, which launched in 1996. He wrapped his last broadcast Friday afternoon. He was less than two years into a new “multi-year deal” he inked with Fox News in 2018.

“Recently I asked the company to allow me to leave Fox News and begin a new chapter. After requesting that I stay, they graciously obliged,” Smith said in a statement. “The opportunities afforded this guy from small town Mississippi have been many. It’s been an honor and a privilege to report the news each day to our loyal audience in context and with perspective, without fear or favor. I’ve worked with the most talented, dedicated and focused professionals I know and I’m proud to have anchored their work each day — I will deeply miss them.”

His departure will no doubt raise speculation that Fox News, which is criticized severely by President Donald Trump when it reports news that doesn’t favor him or his administration, brought pressure to bear. Trump on Thursday lambasted a handful of Fox News anchors and analysts who typically try to hold him to account. Smith was among their number, along with Andrew Napolitano, a former judge, and Donna Brazile, a well-known Democratic operative and adviser. U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently paid a visit to Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of Fox Corp., a meeting that has prompted comments on social media Friday. A person familiar with the matter said Smith was not fired, and came to the decision to leave on his own.

In recent months, Smith was sometimes taken to task by the opinion hosts in Fox News’ primetime lineup. Both Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have at times disparaged his reporting. In late September, viewers of both Carlson’s 8 p.m. hour and Smith’s regular 3 p.m. roost could not help but notice a back-and-forth between the pair. Smith and Napolitiano on a recent broadcast suggested the burgeoning impeachment inquiry the U.S. House of Representatives is starting to conduct had legitimacy. Carlson later that same day hosted guests who cast aspersions on the former judge. The next day, Smith offered a tart retort: “Attacking our colleague who is here to offer legal assessments, on our air, in our work home, is repugnant.”

In the past, Smith expressed ambivalence about Fox News’ opinion hosts. “We serve different masters. We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules. They don’t really have rules on the opinion side. They can say whatever they want. If it’s their opinion,” he told Time in 2018. ” I don’t really watch a lot of opinion programming. I’m busy.”

Smith’s no-nonsense delivery has at some points rendered him an island unto himself at the cable-news outlet. But he had thrived even if his reportage was not in sync with the high-profile views espoused by popular primetime hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson.  In 2013, Smith was charged with being chief anchor and managing editor of Fox News’ breaking-news unit, and given a suite of production tools that let the team around him monitor social-media feeds and real-time video as he sought to provide the latest details on any number of big events. At the outset, he was even given leeway to break into regularly scheduled programming if executives deemed it appropriate.

During his last Fox News broadcast Friday, Smith told viewers that “I won’t be reporting elsewhere, at least in the near future.” As time passes, he added, “we’ll see what comes along.” The network said a series of rotating anchors, including Jon Scott and Trace Gallagher, will host the time slot he previously occupied until it is replaced with a new program.

Smith was a virtual unknown before arriving at Fox News Channel. He had logged time as a TV reporter at a station in Florida, WJHG. He jumped to other outlets in the state, then made his way to Los Angeles, where he eventually won a spot with an affiliate service run by Fox. He joined Fox News Channel at its inception, and was given the task of delivering an early-evening newscast aimed at going toe to toe with the ones offered by the broadcast networks. Smith would anchor “The Fox Report with Shepard Smith” from 1999 to 2013.

Some Fox News news personnel took to social media to vent their surprise.  “Shepard Smith just dropped a bomb,” said John Roberts, the network’s chief White House correspondent. “He was part of the glue that held Fox together. He is a supreme pro who made us all better.”  Others, including opinion hosts like Hannity and Ainsley Earhardt, also posted notes of support.

In his last words at his desk on Fox News, Smith expressed hope that his style of journalism would continue to thrive, despite the seemingly intractable divided between liberals and conservatives in the modern political climate. “Even in our currently polarized nation, it’s my hope that the facts will win the day,” he told viewers. “That the truth will always matter. That journalism and journalists will thrive.”