A Guide to the Walter Cronkite Papers, 1932-2014
Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. (1916-2009) was born to Walter Leland Cronkite and Helena Fritsche in St. Joseph, Missouri. When Cronkite was ten years old, his family moved to Houston, where his father, a dentist, took a teaching position at a dental college and went into dental practice there. As a student at San Jacinto High School in Houston, Cronkite came under the strong influence of Fred Birney, a journalism teacher, who whetted Cronkite’s early love for reporting. The budding journalist garnered a job with the Houston Post, where, as he recalled in his autobiography, A Reporter’s Life, the staff, perhaps due to their “benevolence,” allowed him to serve as a cub reporter rather than merely as a copy boy. He delighted in the opportunity to cover “luncheon clubs and civic affairs,” and was happy to be rewarded by occasionally seeing his work in print.
Later, as a student at The University of Texas at Austin from 1933 to 1935, he wrote for the Daily Texan and pursued other local reporting opportunities. Soon the Houston Press and the Scripps-Howard News Service offered him employment, prompting him to leave the university without obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Cronkite later recalled that his departure from college was hardly noted by his parents, who, he believed, probably realized that having a job during the Great Depression was far more important than possessing a college diploma. He took on newspaper and radio work in Texas and the Midwest. These jobs eventually led to a position with the United Press (UP) in 1937. It was during his work as a wire service reporter that Cronkite developed his journalist’s credo: “fast, accurate, and unbiased.” The credo guided him for the rest of his career, and he developed a reporting style that drew praise for being fair and free from bias.
As a war correspondent during World War II, Cronkite covered Europe and North Africa, D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge. He was also selected as one of eight journalists allowed to accompany U.S. pilots flying bombing raids over Europe. One of his bombing raids companions was Andy Rooney of the Army’s Stars and Stripes, who would later join CBS News. Following the end of the war, Cronkite served as the chief UP correspondent at the Nuremburg trials. He also opened and directed the Moscow branch of UP and worked as a Washington D.C.-based reporter for several Midwest radio stations.
In 1950, the highly respected CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow offered Cronkite a position at the network’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where Cronkite’s prowess sufficiently impressed network officials to earn him a temporary job delivering the news at the local CBS affiliate, WTOP-TV. This modest beginning in the early days of television news broadcasting launched Cronkite into an extraordinary network news career. Two years after he joined the network’s capitol bureau, Sig Mickelson, the first president of CBS Television News, chose Cronkite to serve as the anchor for the 1952 presidential nominating conventions. This opportunity brought Cronkite national recognition as an able broadcast journalist, and Time magazine lauded his work. He anchored every succeeding national party convention except in 1964, when Robert Trout and Roger Mudd replaced him.
Cronkite became best known for his long-running role as the managing editor and anchor of the CBS Evening News. The position allowed him a great deal of leverage in choosing and developing the stories, graphics, and script for the final live broadcast. Soon after his ascension to this formidable post, the CBS Evening News expanded from fifteen to thirty minutes, making Cronkite the anchor of the nation’s first nightly half-hour national news program.
The first broadcast of the expanded program in early September 1963 included an exclusive interview with President John F. Kennedy, who confessed to Cronkite his reservations about the U.S. role in Vietnam. Less than three months later, when the president was assassinated in Dallas, Cronkite went on the air to report the tragedy to the American people. “From Dallas, Texas, the flash—apparently official—President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central standard time, 2 p.m. Eastern standard time, some 38 minutes ago,” Cronkite said. For most of the following four days of television coverage of the president’s death and funeral, Cronkite remained on the air, reporting on all the events. He later confirmed how emotionally trying a moment it had been to inform the nation about President Kennedy’s death. He recalled, “The words stuck in my throat.”
In the years immediately following the Kennedy assassination, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite continued its incisive coverage of such turbulent events as the major riots in the nation’s inner cities, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and the growing American opposition to the Vietnam War. Cronkite traveled to Vietnam during the Tet offensive of 1968. Disillusioned by what he observed, he returned home to broadcast a special report on the Tet, ending it with an editorial that announced, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. …It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out, then, will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” In the following months, Cronkite learned that President Lyndon Johnson had watched the report and concluded, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
An enthusiastic supporter of space exploration, Cronkite possessed a strong knack for monitoring and interpreting the news surrounding each space launch. His ability was tested in the early stages of the Mercury program, when he had to report on the launching of the first American into space in 1961 from the back seat of a station wagon because there were no on-site news facilities. Cronkite went on to cover all the major stories in the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union. He also oversaw the CBS news coverage of the landing of Apollo XI on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. The usually composed Cronkite could not mask his unbridled joy over this historic moment. He cried out, “Man on the moon! Oh, boy! Whew, boy!” He remained on the air for many hours, covering the Apollo XI crew’s walk on the moon’s surface.
Under Cronkite’s direction of the CBS Evening News, other major national and international stories received in-depth coverage. After the revelations of the Washington Post on the break-in at Democratic National Committee Party offices at the Watergate complex, the CBS Evening News broadcast a two-part account of the scandal to inform Americans, whose confidence in the nation’s executive branch had been shaken by news of the president’s involvement. Cronkite’s role in bringing the story to the CBS Evening News elicited an avalanche of pro and con letters to the network. The political instability in the Middle East was an important international issue to which CBS, under Cronkite’s leadership, brought news coverage. His separate interviews with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were considered the impetus for Sadat and Begin to engage in discussions with President Jimmy Carter at Camp David in September 1978. The leaders’ talks led to a peace accord between the two nations.
The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite came to be seen as the model for television news reporting although during his early years of anchoring the CBS Evening News, Cronkite competed with NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report. By the late 1960s, however, his broadcast overtook this chief competitor. For the remaining years of Cronkite’s tenure as managing editor and anchor, CBS remained in first place in the evening news category, and gained a reputation for its reporting precision.
Cronkite’s career at CBS included working on a host of well received news series, including You are There, Twentieth Century, Eyewitness to History, and CBS Reports. Cronkite especially excelled as an on-the-scene reporter for Eyewitness to History, which in one segment covered President Eisenhower’s 1959 farewell tour of Europe. In the You are There series, Cronkite made use of the dramatic recreation of historical events such as segments on the death of Joan of Arc and the siege at the Alamo. After Texas Governor Allan Shivers viewed the program on the Alamo, he wrote Cronkite to commend him for his work.
After retiring from the CBS Evening News in 1981, Cronkite continued to work on other media projects. He began hosting the PBS New Year’s Eve Vienna Philharmonic show and produced “Walter Cronkite’s 20th Century,” a 90-second segment for CBS radio for five years. This project officially marked his last news work for CBS. In 1993, he established the Cronkite Ward Company, and began to produce award-winning documentaries for The Discovery Channel, PBS, and other networks.
Walter Cronkite received numerous honors for his achievements in journalism, including two Peabody Awards, the William A. White Award for journalistic merit, the George Polk Journalism Award, two Alfred I. Du Pont-Columbia University Awards in Broadcast Journalism, and several Emmys. President Jimmy Carter presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In appreciation of his excellence in reporting on space exploration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) honored Cronkite with its Ambassador of Exploration Award, making him the first non-astronaut and the only non-NASA individual to be so honored. In addition, Cronkite was recognized with honorary degrees from Harvard University, Syracuse University, and Ohio State University, among others.
Walter Cronkite died July 17, 2009. He was preceded in death by his beloved wife Betsy, whom he married in 1940. He is survived by his three children, Nancy, Kathy, and Walter "Chip" Cronkite III, and his four grandchildren.
The Walter Cronkite Papers, 1932-2014, cover the noted CBS newsman's more than five-decades-long career as one of the nation's most respected journalists. Materials begin with Cronkite's early life in Houston and his student days at The University of Texas at Austin and include his work as a correspondent for the United Press covering World War II and the Nuremberg war crimes trial. The majority of the papers, however, deal with his career with CBS News from 1950 through his retirement in 1981 as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
The Cronkite Papers include research files, audio and video recordings and clippings on news events of the 1960s and 1970s, with a special emphasis on space exploration and politics; presidential nominating conventions; mail from viewers, representing opinions about current events from the 1950s to 1980s; personal correspondence with well-known figures, many in the news business; television and radio production materials from CBS news series Cronkite reported such as You are There, Twentieth Century, Eyewitness to History, and CBS Reports; and Cronkite’s appearances, narrations, and speeches, business interests, awards, and personal life, especially his boats, travel, and organizations with which Cronkite was associated. Other materials include scripts and outlines, memos, and source materials for documentary productions by the Cronkite Ward Company and Cronkite Productions, Inc. The Cronkite Papers also include a number of photographs that document Cronkite's early life and his reportage from World War II and Vietnam, as well as his interviews with U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.
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Portions of this collection are stored remotely. Advance notice required for retrieval.
Walter Cronkite Papers, 1932-2014, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
Walter Cronkite Papers