Cronkite lived in Kansas City, Missouri until he was ten, when his family moved to Houston, Texas. He attended junior high school at Lanier Junior High School (now Lanier Middle School) and high school at San Jacinto High School. He was a member of the Boy Scouts. He attended college at The University of Texas at Austin, where he worked on The Daily Texan, and became a member of the Nu chapter of the Chi Phi Fraternity. He also was a member of the fraternal organization of young men known as DeMolay (a member of the Houston Chapter)..
From 1953 to 1957, Cronkite hosted the CBS program You Are There, which reenacted historical events, using the format of a news report. His famous last line for these programs was: "What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times... and you were there." He also hosted The Twentieth Century, a documentary series about important historical events of the century which was made up almost exclusively of newsreel footage and interviews. It became a long-running hit. (Note: In the early 1970s, You Are There, hosted by Walter Cronkite, was revived and redesigned to attract an audience of teenagers and young adults. It aired on Saturday mornings.)
During the early part of his tenure anchoring the CBS Evening News, Cronkite competed against NBC's anchor team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who anchored the Huntley-Brinkley Report. For most of the 1960s, the Huntley-Brinkley Report had more viewers than Cronkite's broadcast. This began to change in the late 1960s, as RCA made a corporate decision not to fund NBC News at the levels CBS funded CBS News. Consequently, CBS News acquired a reputation for accuracy and depth in its broadcast journalism. This reputation meshed nicely with Cronkite's wire service experience, and in 1968, the CBS Evening News began to surpass The Huntley-Brinkley Report in viewership during the summer months. In that same year, the faculty of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University voted to award him the Carr Van Anda Award "for enduring contributions to journalism.
In 1970, Walter Cronkite received a "Freedom of the Press" George Polk Award. That same year, the CBS Evening News finally dominated the American TV news viewing audience, when Huntley retired. Although NBC finally settled on the skilled and well-respected broadcast journalist John Chancellor, Cronkite proved to be more popular and continued to be top-rated until his retirement in 1981. That year, President Jimmy Carter awarded Cronkite the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
One of Cronkite's trademarks was ending the CBS Evening News with the phrase, "...And that's the way it is:", followed by the date (keeping to standards of objective journalism, he omitted this phrase on nights when he ended the newscast with opinion or commentary). Beginning with January 161980, "Day 50" of the Iran hostage crisis, Cronkite added the length of the hostages' captivity to the show's closing to remind the audience of the unresolved situation, ending only on "Day 444", January 201981.
For many years, Cronkite was considered one of the most trusted figures in the United States. Affectionately known as "Uncle Walter", he covered many of the important news events of the era so effectively that his image and voice are closely associated with the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and the Watergate scandal. Enjoying the cult of personality surrounding Cronkite in those years, CBS allowed some good-natured fun-poking of its star anchorman in some episodes of the network's popular situation comedy, All in the Family, during which the lead character Archie Bunker would sometimes complain about the newsman, calling him "Pinko Cronkite."
Cronkite trained himself to speak at a rate of 124 words per minute in his newscasts, so that viewers could clearly understand him. In contrast, Americans average about 165 words per minute, and fast, difficult-to-understand talkers speak close to 200 words per minute. Currently, Walter Cronkite's voice can be heard announcing CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric at the beginning of the news broadcast, and at Retirement Living TV's Daily Cafe
"Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting."
A second bulletin arrived as Cronkite was reading the first one, which detailed the severity of President Kennedy's wounds:
"More details just arrived. President Kennedy shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy, she called "Oh no!," the motorcade sped on. United Press [International] says that the wounds for President Kennedy perhaps could be fatal. Repeating, a bulletin from CBS News: President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned to CBS News for further details."
Following the first bulletin, a commercial, sponsor bumper, and network TV show bumper (for "Route 66") were aired, after which As The World Turns was to return from break. Just as that was about to happen Cronkite broke in again with another bulletin, this one detailing for the first time the injuries to Texas Governor John Connally, who was riding in the same car as the President and who had also been shot:
"Here is a bulletin from CBS News. Further details on an assassination attempt against President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. President Kennedy was shot as he drove from Dallas Airport to downtown Dallas; Governor Connally of Texas, in the car with him, was also shot. It is reported that three bullets rang out. A Secret Service man was heard to shout from the car, "He's dead." Whether he referred to President Kennedy or not is not yet known. The President, cradled in the arms of his wife Mrs. Kennedy, was carried to an ambulance and the car rushed to Parkland Hospital outside Dallas, the President was taken to an emergency room in the hospital. Other White House officials were in doubt in the corridors of the hospital as to the condition of President Kennedy. Repeating this bulletin: President Kennedy shot while driving in an open car from the airport in Dallas, Texas, to downtown Dallas."
Cronkite then recapped the events as they had happened: that the President and Governor Connally were shot and in the emergency room at Parkland Hospital and no one knew their condition as of yet. He then reminded the viewers that CBS News would continue to provide updates as more information came in.
CBS returned to ATWT, still in progress as the cast was not yet aware of what had just happened. During the next commercial segment Cronkite again read a bulletin that he had received from the news wire machines in the CBS newsroom, then stayed on the air for the next ten minutes reading bulletins as they were handed to him. Cronkite would then recap the events as they happened while interspersing the new information where it was appropriate. He also brought up recent instances of assassination attempts against sitting Presidents (including the assassination of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak), as well as a recent attack of United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson in Dallas which resulted in extra security measures being taken for Kennedy's visit to the city. He also received word that Congressman Albert Thomas of Texas had been told that for the moment the President and Governor were still alive.
By 2:00 EST, Cronkite was informed that the camera was ready, and told the viewers over the air that CBS would be taking a station identification break so the affiliates could join the network. Within twenty seconds all the CBS affiliates (with the exception of KRLD in Dallas, who was covering the tragedy locally) joined the network's coverage of what was taking place. Cronkite appeared on-air in shirt and tie but without his suit coat, given the urgent nature of the story, and opened with this:
"This is Walter Cronkite in our newsroom, and... there has been an attempt, as perhaps you know now, on the life of President Kennedy. He was wounded in an automobile driving from Dallas Airport into downtown Dallas, along with Governor Connally of Texas. They have been taken to Parkland Hospital there, where their condition is as yet unknown."
Cronkite then tried to throw to KRLD's coverage, but the camera was not ready. Once it was, the camera switched into the Dallas Trade Mart meeting that President Kennedy was supposed to address, where the station's news director Eddie Barker was reporting. He said that the President was still alive (as Cronkite had been told by the report from Congressman Thomas earlier and directly by Congressman Jim Wright a few minutes before Barker's report was filed). About five minutes later Barker reported that rumors has begun to circulate that Kennedy was in fact dead.
Cronkite reappeared several minutes after Barker reported that Kennedy was rumored to have been killed, advising that two priests had been called to Kennedy's bedside although the reasons for which were not made clear. He also played an audio report by KRLD's Jim Underwood, recounting that someone had been arrested in the assassination attempt at the Texas School Book Depository. After said report, Cronkite was told that KRLD was reporting that that the President was dead and Barker was reporting that he had been told by a doctor at Parkland Hospital of the President's death. While the coverage continued at the Dallas Trade Mart meeting Barker implied that the assassination was officially confirmed, but neither the Associated Press or United Press International had done so. Barker then retracted the statement, saying that it was not official that the President was dead.
After coverage returned to the CBS newsroom in New York Cronkite again reported the events as they were known. Four minutes after CBS resumed coverage Cronkite received another report, this time from Dallas bureau chief Dan Rather, that the President was dead but stressed that nothing had been officially confirmed by any other source. He later reported that the priest called in to perform the Last Rites to the President did not believe that he was dead when he performed them, seeming to contradict what Barker and Rather had been reporting.
Cronkite then continued to report for the next several minutes while still waiting official word of the President's apparent death. At approximately 2:38 p.m. EST, Cronkite was remarking on the increased security presence in Dallas for the President's visit for fear of protests, bringing up the assault on Adlai Stevenson again.
"Throughout the streets of Dallas, the Dallas Police have been augmented by some 400 policemen called in on their day off because there were some fears and concerns in Dallas that, uh...that there might be demonstrations, at least, that could embarrass the President. Because it was only on October 24th that our ambassador of the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, was assaulted in Dallas leaving a dinner meeting there..."
While speaking, he was handed a bulletin by one of the news editors, who had just pulled it off the AP wire machine. Cronkite stopped speaking, put on his glasses, looked over the bulletin sheet for a moment, took off his eyeglasses, and made the official announcement:
"From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: (reading AP flash) President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago."
After making that announcement, Cronkite paused briefly, put his glasses back on and swallowed hard to maintain his composure. There was noticeable emotion in his voice as he intoned the next sentence of the news report:
"Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded. Presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th president of the United States."
With emotion still in his voice, Cronkite then proceeded as he had before in recapping the events after collecting himself, reminding the viewers that it had now been confirmed that the President was dead, that Vice President Johnson was now the President and was to be sworn in (Johnson had been sworn in aboard Air Force One at approximately the same time that Cronkite received word of the President's death, but word had not been passed to the wire services yet), that Governor Connally's condition was not known at the time although many reports said that he was still alive, and that there was no report if the assassin had been captured (despite the reports of arrests earlier at the Texas School Book Depository). He then tossed coverage of the events to colleague Charles Collingwood and left the newsroom. Footage from this historic broadcast was featured in the opening scenes of Oliver Stone's film JFK.
In a 2006 TV interview with Nick Clooney, Cronkite confirmed:
"I choked up, I really had a little trouble...my eyes got a little wet...[what Kennedy had represented] was just all lost to us. Fortunately, I grabbed hold before I was actually [crying]."
In a 2003 CBS special commemorating the 40th anniversary of the assassination, Cronkite said that he was standing at the United Press wire machine when the bulletin broke and was clamoring to get on the air as fast as was possible. Upon having the death confirmed to him, he said:
And when you finally had to say it's official, the President is dead...pretty tough words in a situation like that. And they were, um, hard to come by.
During the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Cronkite was anchoring the CBS network coverage as violence and protests occurred outside the convention, as well as scuffles inside the convention hall. When Dan Rather was punched to the floor (on camera) by security personnel, Cronkite commented, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan."
According to the 2006 PBS documentary on Cronkite, there was "nothing new" in his reports on the Watergate affair; however, Cronkite brought together a wide range of reporting, and his credibility and status is credited by many with pushing the Watergate story to the forefront with the American public, ultimately resulting in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on August 9, 1974. Cronkite had anchored the CBS coverage of Nixon's address, announcing his impending resignation, the night before.
Cronkite also was one of the first to receive word of President Lyndon Johnson's death during the January 22, 1973 broadcast of the CBS Evening News. While a videotaped report by Peter Kalischer about the apparently successful Vietnam war peace talks was being shown to the nation, Johnson's press secretary Tom Johnson (no relation to LBJ) telephoned Cronkite to inform him of Johnson's death. CBS cut abruptly from the report at 6:38 p.m. Eastern Standard Time to Cronkite, who was still speaking to Johnson on the phone. After holding up a finger to pause and let Johnson finish, he broke the news to the nation that the former President had died, then continued to speak with Johnson (who was not patched through to the air) for a few more seconds to gather whatever remaining details he could, then hung up the phone and relayed those details to the audience. During the final 10 minutes of that broadcast, Cronkite reported on the passing, giving a retrospective on the life of nation's 36th president, and announced that CBS would air a special on LBJ later that evening. This story was re-told on a 2007 CBS-TV special honoring Cronkite's 90th birthday. Tom Johnson later became president of CNN.
NBC's Garrick Utley, anchoring NBC Nightly News that evening, also interrupted his newscast in order to break the story, doing so about three minutes after Cronkite on CBS. ABC, however, did not cover the story at all, since, at the time, that network fed its evening newscast to local stations at 6 p.m. Eastern, even though many affiliates tape-delayed the broadcast to air at 6:30 or 7.
He also was the voice of Captain NewEyes', the twin brother of Dr. EvilEye's, in 1993's classic We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story. His outstanding performance resulted in the immense success of this animated children's film.
Longevity runs in Cronkite's family: his mother died in 1993 at the age of 101. Cronkite was 77 at the time of his mother's death.
Cronkite's farewell statement:
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. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards, preceded me in this job, and another, Dan Rather, will follow. And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists; writers, reporters, editors, producers, and none of that will change. Furthermore, I'm not even going away! I'll be back from time to time with special news reports and documentaries, and, beginning in June, every week, with our science program, Universe. Old anchormen, you see, don't fade away; they just keep coming back for more. And that's the way it is: Friday, March 6, 1981. I'll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night.
Cronkite is a supporter of the anti-War on Drugs Drug Policy Alliance and the nonprofit world hunger organization Heifer International. His distinctive voice provides narration for the television ads of the University of Texas at Austin, his alma mater. Cronkite is also an avid sailor and a member of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, with the honorary rank of commodore.
"Uncle Walter" has recently hosted a number of TV specials and been featured in interviews about the times and events that occurred during his career as America's "most trusted" man. In July 2006, the 90-minute documentary "Walter Cronkite: Witness to History" aired on PBS. The special was narrated by Katie Couric, who assumed the CBS Evening News anchor chair in September 2006. Cronkite provides the voiceover introduction to Couric's CBS Evening News, which began on September 5 2006.