The Unknown History of CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite

CBS Evening News has been one of America’s most influential news services for decades. It started back in 1948 and as had been broadcast continually ever since. The show airs live in the Eastern and Central Time Zones and it is broadcast on a delay in the Mountain Time Zone. It’s also shown across the world in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and South America. It’s even a featured program on a Japanese news network.

The person who is most responsible CBS Evening News‘ success is Walter Cronkite. When he was an anchorman on the show he was often called, “the most trusted man in America.” With so many decades of history, we’re taking a look back at some of the program’s biggest moments, little-known facts, behind the scenes trivia, and yes, even the occasional controversy.

CBS Television News

Source: Atomic Theater
Source: Atomic Theater

The CBS Evening News was called CBS Television News when it first broadcast in the 1940s. It launched as a nightly format news program which aired for 15 minutes every weeknight.

The first anchor was Douglas Edwards. Edwards had started his career on CBS Radio and during the 1940s had been hosting Behind the Scenes at CBS before joining the television news team. His stint on the show would cover the attempted assassination of Harry Truman and the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria. However, as the show moved through the 1950s, ratings under Edwards’ stewardship of the show began to drop precipitously.

Two Name Changes and a Change of Anchor

Source: Newsweek
Source: Newsweek

CBS Television News changed its name when Walter Cronkite was appointed anchor in 1962. It became Walter Cronkite with the News but the name wasn’t considered catchy enough and it was changed again in 1963 to the CBS Evening News (with Walter Cronkite).

At the same time, the show changed its format from a 15-minute daily program to a 30 minute one. It was the first ever 30-minute daily news show on any American television network. The program was broadcast daily at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time and was, in most places, broadcast live but affiliate broadcasters had the option to show it on a delay.

Top of the Ratings and Top of the Polls

Source: Three Shots Were Fired
Source: Three Shots Were Fired

The transformation of CBS Evening News was nothing but positive. The Huntley-Brinkley Report had, up to that point, been dominating the ratings for news shows but the appointment of Cronkite reversed that trend and for the next 18 years, CBS Evening News would top the ratings nationally.

During this run, Walter Cronkite earned his “most trusted man in America” title when a Gallup poll put the question to the American people and Cronkite won in a landslide. This was the golden era of television news when Cronkite’s presence lent an air of both authority and respectability to journalists everywhere.

From Humble Beginnings

Source: EECKC
Source: EECKC

Walter Cronkite was born in Missouri on November 4, 1916. Though he was born in Saint Joseph, he was lived in Kansas City, Missouri until he was 10. His family then uprooted to Texas and he spent his later childhood years living in Houston. He was a popular student and was the editor of his high school newspaper. He was also an active Boy Scout.

Then he went to college at the University of Texas, Austin and joined the Chi Phi Fraternity. He also continued his interests in journalism and took up work on the Daily Texan newspaper. However, he dropped out of university in 1935 because he’d decided that he’d rather be a journalist than a student.

Radio First and Love Blossomed

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Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

As with many journalists of his day, Walter Cronkite’s career began on the radio. He only continued with print journalism for a short time after leaving the university before taking up a full-time announcer’s job on WKY in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

He wasn’t known for being Walter Cronkite back then; his broadcast name was “Walter Wilcox.” Why? As Walter explained, back then broadcasters were terrified that if their talent left, so would their audience, so they asked presenters to take up a unique name that could be transferred to another presenter if necessary. Walter also met his wife Mary Elizabeth “Besty” Maxwell during his stint at WKY.

Rejecting the Murrow Boys

Source: Tufts University
Source: Tufts University

If Cronkite’s name was synonymous with journalism in the 1960s, the man whose name was inextricably linked with journalism before that was Ed Murrow. In 1937, Cronkite joined the United Press (UP) and became one of the best established American reporters of news from World War II. He was present at battles in both Europe and North Africa.

His new found fame meant he received an offer from Ed Murrow at CBS to work for him. His pay was $125 a week and he received a bonus of $25 each time his segments appear on air. This was more than double his UP salary. However, UP jumped in with an improved offer and Cronkite turned Ed Murrow down.

No Hard Feelings

Source: Monologue DB
Source: Monologue DB

Ed Murrow didn’t bear a grudge and in 1950 he finally persuaded Cronkite to join CBS. Walter’s first assignment was as the anchor of a Sunday news broadcast called Up to The Minute. He impressed the folks at CBS with each assignment and was promoted several times to new shows including What’s My Line? and You Are There.

He also upset a CBS sponsor, Winston Cigarettes, by changing their slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” by replacing “like” with “as.” He then went on to present the 1960 Winter Olympics to the nation in place of Jim McKay who dropped out from health issues.

NBC Made It Easy

Source: Time
Source: Time

When Walter Cronkite took over CBS Evening News in 1962 the show had been losing serious ground to the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. Happily, RCA made a decision at about this time to reduce their funding for news on the NBC and that meant CBS Evening News had a far larger budget to produce the show than their competitor did.

The improved format combined with Cronkite’s already sterling reputation as one of America’s finest journalists meant that CBS Evening News quickly trounced the Huntley-Brinkley Report in the ratings. Cronkite would sign off each show with “…and that’s the way it is.” And it was.

The Death of a President

Source: History Click
Source: History Click

One of the key defining moments of Cronkite’s career on CBS Evening News was breaking the story of President John F Kennedy’s assassination to the nation.

This wasn’t an easy thing to do as the CBS Evening News studio wasn’t ready to broadcast at that time because the only camera available was currently in pieces on a technician’s desk being repaired for that night. Cronkite decided to head to the CBS Radio Network studio and break the news on air without any visual accompaniment for the first twenty minutes of the broadcast until the camera was reassembled.

A President Loses Cronkite

Source: Classtools
Source: Classtools

In 1968, Walter Cronkite broke the unhappy news to the American nation about the Vietnam War when he said, “To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.

To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism.” President Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have been so distraught to have heard this that he said, “I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

The First Broadcast to Reach the World

Walter Cronkite’s profile and dynamism meant that when the first satellite, Telstar 1, launched into space, he was bound to be one of the first people to present globally. In the event, Cronkite appeared on the very first show to be broadcast multi-nationally along with NBC’s Chet Huntley and Richard Dimbleby of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Cronkite and Huntley played their part in New York and Dimbleby broadcast separately from Brussels. The success of this first broadcast meant that across the 1960s, news would move from a domestic affair to an international one as the Intelsat satellites came online.

Man Hits the Moon

July 20, 1969, was the date forever enshrined in history as the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the lunar surface.

Twenty minutes later, Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong and the two walked for just over two hours and picked up nearly 50 lbs (which is just under 25 kilos) of rock to bring home. Cronkite’s coverage of the event is remembered for his visible excitement and enthusiasm. He exclaimed, “Whew… boy.” as the lander made its final descent and his beaming grin told the story as eloquently as a speech could have done.

Bringing The Beatles to America

Source: NPR
Source: NPR

Ed Sullivan is remembered for being the man who brought The Beatles to America but it was actually Walter Cronkite who first recorded a story with The Fab Four from Liverpool. Cronkite recorded a four-minute story on November 22, 1963, which was due to air soon after.

However, the show was due to be broadcast on the same day as President Kennedy was shot and the broadcast was delayed. The four-minute slot with The Beatles eventually aired on December 10, 1963 after the Ed Sullivan show had aired and introduced America to its most successful charting band in history.

Mandatory Retirement

Source: PBS
Source: PBS

Walter Cronkite’s stint as the anchor of CBS Evening News came to a halt on February 14, 1980. He had reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 which was strictly enforced by CBS.

He said, “This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of The CBS Evening News; for me, it’s a moment for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we’ve been meeting like this in the evenings, and I’ll miss that. But those who have made anything of this departure, I’m afraid have made too much… I’m not even going away! I’ll be back from time to time with special news reports and documentaries.”

Dan Rather Picks up the Baton

Source: Wikia
Source: Wikia

Dan Rather took over where Walter Cronkite left off. It wasn’t always a smooth transition and many felt that Rather’s politics were too much of a liberal slant for him to be an effective anchor. Despite that, Rather would host CBS Evening News for the next 24 years, two of which were co-anchored by Connie Chung.

Rather is said to have resented Chung’s appointment in 1993 and by 1995 she departed the show and he returned to a sole anchor position. He retired in 2005 at the age of 73. However, his departure was dogged by controversy and claims of biased reporting of the 2004 presidential election campaign.

Bob Schieffer Runs with it, Briefly

Source: WTYV
Source: WTYV

Bob Schieffer’s stint following Rather’s departure from CBS Evening News was brief indeed. In fairness to Schieffer, he was always considered a temporary stand-in until the right candidate came along.

He did a good job of repairing the damage wrought by Rather’s final years as anchor, in which ratings had begun to dip substantially, and made up lost ground on ABC and NBC. His entire run on the show was from March 10, 2005, until August 31, 2006. When he left, CBS Evening News was battling ABC head-to-head for the number two news slot in America.

Katie Couric Arrives and Leaves

Source: WND
Source: WND

In 2006, CBS Evening News would have its first female solo-anchor. Katie Couric, who had been working as the co-anchor on Today on NBC, left NBC after a 15-year run to head up CBS Evening News.

Her tenure on the show was a mixed bag with ratings seeming to leap up one minute and plummet the next. Her worst moments were equivalent to the worst ratings CBS Evening News had ever seen. It’s agreed that her finest hour on the show was when she put Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin through the wringer with a really tough interview. She departed the show in April 2011, when CBS rejected an option to renew her contract.

Scott Pelley Starts and Stays

Source: KOTV
Source: KOTV

Scott Pelley’s appointment to the CBS Evening News was announced on May 3, 2011. He didn’t make his first appearance, however, until June 6, 2011. His first nine months on the show won nearly a million new viewers to CBS Evening News and the show has increased its audience share in every single year of his tenure.

This is a feat unmatched by any anchor who has worked on a news show in the era of Nielsen Ratings. It’s felt that much of his success can be attributed to the fact that he switched the program back to a hard news program from the soft news/infotainment efforts of Katie Couric.

Cronkite’s Continuing Career

Source: CMGDigital
Source: CMGDigital

Life wasn’t over for Walter Cronkite when he retired from CBS Evening News, far from it in fact. He became a special correspondent for a variety of American networks including CBS, CNN, and NPR.

He worked in the UK where he famously interviewed the recent victor of the Prime Ministerial race, Margaret Thatcher. He also appeared in cameo roles in a variety of film and television shows. His work as a voice-over artist has been used by Disney, NASA, and a host of major broadcasters. And last but not least, he also continued as the voiceover introduction to CBS Evening News itself.

Walter Cronkite’s Final Bow

Source: NYCAGO
Source: NYCAGO

It was July 17, 2009, and for the first time ever there was no voiced introduction to CBS Evening News. Why? That day, Walter Cronkite had passed away at the ripe old age of 92 in his home in New York City. The reported cause of death was cerebrovascular disease, a common condition in seniors.

He was laid to rest in New York at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan on July 23, 2009. The funeral is said to have been a warm affair with his friends paying tribute not just to his career but his love of many things in life and in particular music.