Born in Denver, Colorado, he received his B.A. from Yale University in 1935 and his law degree from Yale in 1938. He practiced law in St. Louis, Missouri from 1938 to 1941. During World War II, he worked for the Federal government at the Office of Price Administration (1942-1945) and the United States Department of Justice's Foreign Agents Registration Section (1945-1948). At Justice, he worked on desegregation and civil rights cases in the Civil Rights section.
Putzel said the ideal reporter must be a lawyer, a "word nut", and a "double revolving peripatetic nit-picker."