And That's The Way It Was

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Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite speaks at a ceremony at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington celebrating the 35th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2004. Source: nasa.gov
Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite speaks at a ceremony at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington celebrating the 35th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2004. Source: nasa.gov
Walter Cronkite takes the helm of the USS Constitution 21 July 1997.
Walter Cronkite takes the helm of the USS Constitution 21 July 1997.

On November 4, 1916, Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Missouri. He lived in Kansas City for the first 10 years of his life, returned to Kansas City again at the onset of his journalistic career, and then went on to become one of the most prolific television reporters in American history and the archetype for the avuncular TV news anchorman.

At the age of nine, in 1925, Cronkite's first job was to peddle the Saturday issue of the Kansas City Star on the streetcar lines for a net profit of 10 cents per week. Later in life, he recounted the pleasure of lolling on the Liberty Memorial hill and observing the railroad activity at Union Station, as well as the bustling activity of a thriving downtown.

When Cronkite was 10, his family moved to Houston, Texas. At the age of 17, Cronkite became a correspondent of the Houston Post at the University of Texas in Austin. Three years later, in 1936, he saw a job posting at Kansas City's KCMO Radio station. He got the position and returned to his home town to broadcast news and sports using the pseudonym, "Walter Wilcox." While at work for KCMO Radio, he met Betsy Maxwell, a copywriter who was fresh out of the University of Missouri. Cronkite and Maxwell hit it off quickly and eventually married at Kansas City's Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in 1940.

In 1937, Cronkite joined the United Press (UP) in order to return to newspaper reporting. He was initially based in Kansas City as a UP correspondent, but he traveled through North Africa and Europe to report on developments in World War II. He was one of the few official war correspondents who flew on a bomber during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, among other air missions. He quickly rose through the ranks of the UP and was its chief correspondent for the Nuremberg Trials after the war. It was during these reports that Cronkite began to develop national recognition. He remained with the United Press until 1948, when he returned to doing radio broadcasts for a short time.

In 1950, CBS hired Walter Cronkite and quickly discovered his talent in front of the television camera. His skills proved quite flexible, as he was a news reporter for the Washington, D.C. area, the host of the CBS morning show, the lead reporter in the 1960 Olympics, and a participant in many other news and documentary projects. For his efforts, people inside and outside of CBS began calling him "anchorman," a term which did not even exist before Cronkite came on the scene. In some countries today, anchormen are simply referred to as "cronkiters."

Cronkite's most famous role came in 1962 when he became the anchor of the CBS "Evening News," a 15-minute daily broadcast. At that point, television was still a relatively new medium for news delivery, and the Evening News benefited from having to compete with only two other networks. Within a year the program expanded to a 30-minute format that allowed for considerable depth of journalistic analysis and detail.

Through the 1960s, Cronkite's popularity coincided with the sheer quantity of headline news that he reported, including the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam, and the space race with the Soviet Union. By the 1970s, Cronkite had earned the nickname, "the most trusted man in America." This title was due in no small part to his reporting on the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. After the Tet Offensive made headlines in 1968, his willingness to expose American failures in Vietnam played an important role in turning public opinion against the war. His aggressive (and honest) reporting on the Watergate scandal is widely acknowledged for bringing greater public scrutiny upon the Nixon administration. His signature farewell at the end of each newscast, "And that's the way it is," gave the audience a comforting sense of accuracy and finality.

In 1980, Cronkite retired from the CBS Evening News at the age of 65. He continued working on documentaries, and he became a lead critic of the modern media's tendency to gloss over important details in favor of sensational headlines. While living in New York during these years, Walter and Betsy Cronkite still maintained ties to family and friends in Kansas City, which Betsy fondly called the "Paris of the Middle West." One of these ties was to Kay Waldo Barnes, a cousin of Cronkite who became inspired by him to enter politics and ended up serving as mayor of Kansas City for two terms from 1999-2007. Cronkite helped out in both of her mayoral campaigns. The connection with Barnes also paid dividends for Kansas City in June 2000, when Cronkite emceed a celebration at Arrowhead Stadium marking the 150th anniversary of the city’s founding.

After six decades of marriage to Walter, Betsy Cronkite passed away in 2005 and was buried at Kansas City's Mount Moriah Cemetery. Walter Cronkite died on July 17, 2009, at the age of 92, and was interred next to Betsy at Mount Moriah.

 

Read a building profile of Folly Theater Profile, by Donna Francis; Cronkite attended the reopening premiere after preservation efforts were finished. Prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library.

 

View images of places that were important to Walter Cronkite; that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books and videos about Walter Cronkite, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Continue researching Walter Cronkite using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 200, 231.

Walter Cronkite, A Reporter's Life (New York: Random House, 1996).

Aaron Barnhart, "CBS News Legend Walter Cronkite, 92, Dies," Kansas City Star, July 18, 2009.

Aaron Barnhart, "Broadcast Icon Walter Cronkite Dies," Kansas City Star, July 17, 2009.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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