Walter Cronkite was the most famous journalist of his time, the personification of success in his beloved profession, with all that brought with it: a journalism school named for him, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the adulation of his peers and audience.
Yet I always had the feeling that if late in life someone had tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Walter, we're a little shorthanded this week. Think you could help us on the police beat for a few mornings?" he would have responded, "Boy, oh, boy when and where do you want me?"
Cronkite loved the news business, plain not fancy. He began as a teenage stringer for Houston newspapers and then made his way into radio before being hired by the United Press, the spunky cousin of the Associated Press. During World War II, Walter was UP's man in London, a colleague of the legendary Homer Bigart of the New York Herald Tribune, later of the New York Times; Andy Rooney, then with Stars and Stripes; and Ed Murrow, the incomparable voice of CBS News. Murrow was stunned when Cronkite turned down an offer to become one of Murrow's Boys, as the CBS all-star lineup was called. Cronkite preferred the all-news-all-the-time sensibilities of UP.
At UP, he joined combat missions on B-17s, covered D‑day and the Battle of the Bulge, reported on the Nuremberg trials and was stationed in Moscow at the beginning of the Cold War. When Murrow finally lured him to CBS, Cronkite became a man for all seasons, anchoring political coverage, briefly hosting CBS's The Morning Show (with a puppet, no less), giving America history lessons with You Are There and The Twentieth Century.
Hard to believe now, but when Cronkite took over the CBS Evening News, he was the challenger, not the champion. The stylish Huntley-Brinkley Report was the dominant broadcast in what was still a new phenomenon: the idea that at the end of the day everyone with a television set could hear and see what had happened that day.
As an impressionable teenager in the heartland, I was transported to events in ways I could not have imagined, and it was then that I began to think, Maybe one day I can be a part of all that. Now, looking back, I am eternally grateful to the men (and they were all men) who produced the broadcasts for Huntley, Brinkley and Cronkite. They persuaded their entertainment-oriented bosses that network television was a powerful force in journalism that was not to be underestimated.
Never was that truer than on a fateful Friday in November 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The image of a shirtsleeved Walter Cronkite trying to control his emotions as he broke the news of the young President's death was an iconic and seminal moment in elevating broadcast news to a new level.
We almost never saw our national anchors in shirtsleeves showing any kind of personal emotion. In retrospect, Cronkite's demeanor was restrained and appropriate, a reminder to the audience and young journalists that this was a business of the heart as well as the mind.
The larger lesson of that day was that everyone in this vast land had instant, common access to the same information on events large and small. And there was no shortage of large ones: Vietnam, the civil rights movement, assassinations, the counterculture, space shots, Watergate.
Through it all, Walter Cronkite became the enduring face of network news as the authoritative yet approachable figure in the newsroom. As managing editor, Cronkite was old school: Give me the news, especially the news from the nation's capital. As a student of the form, I marveled at Cronkite's consistency. Night after night, the news might change, but Uncle Walter could be found at the head of the table. When he did break from his objective cadence, it was not trivial: there was his famous commentary on Vietnam and, later that year, his personal remarks from the anchor booth on the rough tactics of the security guards at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
When I was taking over Nightly News, some mutual friends had a small dinner, and Cronkite rose to offer some advice. "There will be nights," he said, "when you think you've done a brilliant job on a big story. You'll leave the studio with the echoes of praise from your colleagues ringing in your ears. And once outside in New York, you'll realize there are millions of people in this city alone who didn't watch and who don't give a damn what you just did."
That was a line I remembered at the end of many days. To those of us of a younger generation, Cronkite was never paternalistic. He didn't like many of the changes in network news, but he was always generous. In the end, what endeared him to so many was that he always seemed like a man you were as likely to find walking down Main Street as knocking back drinks at Toots Shor's or manning his yacht, asking all around him, "What's the latest news?"
If I told him this week, "Walter Cronkite died," he'd laugh and say, "Walter who? Never heard of him."
Brokaw, formerly anchor and managing editor for NBC Nightly News, is now a special correspondent for NBC