Walter Cronkite died last night at the age of 92. Or should I say, he was 92 and a half. In my opinion, anyone who lives to be in their nineties has earned the right to keep track of age in half-years. While it’s sad to see him go, I’m glad he lived to a ripe old age.
Much has already been written about Walter Cronkite. Of course, many have noted that he was an outstanding news reporter and news anchor. His work at CBS News greatly contributed to the tradition of excellence established by Edward R. Murrow. Cronkite will long be remembered for his even-handed delivery of the news of President Kennedy’s death in 1963, and his almost giddy reaction to the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. And who can forget President Johnson’s reaction to Cronkite’s 1967 broadcast on the Tet offensive in which Walter concluded the Vietnam War was essentially a lost cause: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” And that’s the way it was; public opinion on Vietnam deteriorated in the years to follow.
I would like to share just a few things about Walter Cronkite from my own perspective, a few tidbits that are less well known, or at least, not widely reported or commented on.
You probably knew that Walter Cronkite sported a mustache. But you might not know that he was one of the first news anchors to have facial hair, and to this day, he remains one of the few men in national TV news to have proudly worn whiskers. NBC news legend Lowell Thomas had a mustache, but Thomas is more associated with radio news (although his radio newscast was simulcast on some early television stations in the 1940s). And H.R. Baukhage, one of the first TV news anchors at ABC (1948-51) appears to have a faint mustache in some of the available photos from that era. But if you don’t count Thomas (who really was a radio guy) or Baukhage (who really was not well known) Walter Cronkite was the first nationally-famous network news anchor to have facial hair. All of the notable anchors of network television news before Cronkite were clean-shaven, including John Cameron Swayzee, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley at NBC, Douglas Edwards at CBS (whom Cronkite replaced in 1962) and John Charles Daly (the first truly memorable anchor at ABC). And of the network TV news anchors since Cronkite, only Max Robinson at ABC comes to mind as having a mustache. Of course, Wolf Blitzer at CNN wears a nicely trimmed set of whiskers, but I’m talking here about national news anchors at the major broadcast networks. In any case, Walter Cronkite remains one of the few men in national TV news to have facial hair.
I also remember Walter Cronkite for his public speaking skill. Beyond his contributions to broadcast journalism, Cronkite should also be noted as someone who clearly understood the importance of speech communication, and vividly demonstrated effective public speaking techniques. His mastery of public speaking was evident in a video he was featured in called “Presentation Excellence.” I remember this video quite well because I used it frequently in the late 1980s when I regularly taught public speaking at William Jewell College. Although it may seem a bit dated now, the advice contained in this video is quite good, and still remains one of the better videos one can use in an introductory public speaking course. One particularly notable section of the video is Cronkite’s analysis of Barbara Jordan’s speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention (which many rhetorical scholars believe was among the most important speeches of the 20th century). I don’t believe this video is still available, but perhaps CBS will consider releasing an updated version (the original 1984 video was jointly produced by CBS and Fox).
One more thing about Walter Cronkite that I will always remember: the location of the school named after him. That’s because the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is at Arizona State University, the first school that hired me as an adjunct instructor after I completed my master’s degree. In fact, the journalism department at ASU was just being named after Walter Cronkite and elevated to school status in 1984, the year I left Arizona State for a tenure-track post at William Jewell College. If things had worked out a little differently in my career, I might be teaching at ASU today. I still know a few of the long-time faculty members there, including Don Godfrey, always a friendly face when I regularly see him at the annual convention of the Broadcast Education Association. The Walter Cronkite School has become one of the best broadcast journalism schools in the country, rivaling the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State. And certainly one reason for the excellence of the Walter Cronkite School was the active involvement by Walter Cronkite himself in the early years of the school. Cronkite was, after all, a healthy and vibrant man when he was forced to retire from CBS in 1981 at the age of 65. Many people believe he could have gone on to anchor many more years had he been given the chance. But rather than retire to a life of leisure, Cronkite kept active in his golden years, and his imprint on the Cronkite School remains to this day a testament to his exceptional talent.