Conversations with Cronkite
Walter Cronkite and Don Carleton
Don Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

It is hard to believe in 2012, when anybody with a cell phone camera or access to the web is a reporter, that there was a time when journalism was a well respected field, and that one journalist in particular was for decades referred to as “the most trusted man in America.” My American history students especially scoff at this; after all, they have been reared in the era of the twenty-four-hour news cycle–remember when people thought Ted Turner was crazy to think that anyone would be interested in news at all hours of the day and night?–and instant news, the delivery of which more often than not ignores facts, lacks context and has all the subtlety of an M-16 being used to kill a fly.

Walter Leland Cronkite was born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Missouri. His family moved to Houston when he was a youngster and his dentist father took a faculty position at Texas Dental College, now part of the University of Texas at Houston. A somewhat indifferent student, Cronkite claims that most of his teachers were not very good, but readily admits that he circumvented his education by conning his way through many courses and ingratiating himself with his teachers. He had high praise, though, for his journalism teacher at San Jacinto High School. Fred Birney was a full-time journalist who somehow convinced the principal to allow him to develop and teach a part-time journalism class. Cronkite fell in love with journalism hard and fast and credits Birney with not only teaching him the craft, but the professional ethics that went along with it. Colleagues and competitors alike agree that those ethics remained with Cronkite throughout his distinguished career.

Cronkite began that career during the so called golden age of television news. Indeed he, along with David Brinkley, Chet Huntley and a few others, was considered to be the last of the television newsmen known as Murrow’s Boys–that distinguished group of journalists who had the great fortune of reporting the news at the same time as the late Edward R. Murrow, considered to be the finest example of a modern newsman. He was also involved in the use of early innovations in the news room, including the Remington Rand Univac, an early version of the computer. CBS used the Univac to predict the results of presidential elections.

In 1937 Walter Cronkite was a reporter for United Press International (UPI) during World War II, winning kudos for his work in Africa and Europe. After the war he reported on the Nuremberg trials and was the chief UPI representative in Moscow. In 1950 he was recruited by Murrow to join the fledgling television division of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). There he hosted a number of programs, including the popular You Are There, a program that reenacted historical events.

In 1962 he took over as anchor of the CBS Evening News, covering every important story of the period: presidential conventions, political assassinations, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate. Cronkite famously choked back tears when he announced the death of President John F. Kennedy–whom as a United States Senator and presidential candidate he found arrogant and abrasive–and he displayed the wonder of a small boy whenever he reported on the space program. When he left the anchor chair in 1981, his great journalistic integrity was still intact.

The ebullient Cronkite not only talked about the various events he covered, but also offered some insight into how CBS was managed by its various executives. He insisted throughout the interviews that he felt no pressure from management, including the founder of CBS, William S. Paley, to cover or deliver the news in any way other than his own.

In the forward to Conversations with Cronkite, his friend and colleague Morley Safer noted that while Cronkite “. . .could be as ornery and petty and vain as most of us. . .” he was essentially the same man viewers saw in their living rooms every evening: avuncular, decent and fair.

But the last word belongs to the man himself. When describing his working style, Cronkite said: “My interview technique is not to have the blood spurt from the open vein, but to have it drain slowly from the body until you see the white corpse sitting there. I’d like to think it’s an intellectual, thinking man’s interview.”

And that’s the way it was.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.