NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, whose authoritative delivery of news events from the John F. Kennedy assassination to the Apollo moon landing and Vietnam War, made him “the most trusted man in America,” died on Friday at age 92.
Cronkite died in New York after an illness, CBS said. His family issued a statement weeks ago that he had been suffering for some years with cerebrovascular disease and was not expected to recuperate.
His death coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which took the first astronauts to the moon. Cronkite was a passionate chronicler of the space program and anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11 have featured frequent rebroadcasts of his coverage of the historic moon landing.
“He was the consummate television newsman,” said Don Hewitt, a longtime CBS News executive and creator of the long-running “60 Minutes” news program. “He had all the credentials to be a writer, an editor, a broadcaster. There was only one Walter Cronkite and there may never be another one.”
President Barack Obama said Cronkite “was someone we could trust to guide us through the most important issues of the day; a voice of certainty in an uncertain world. He was family. He invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down.”
Former President George W. Bush called Cronkite “an icon of American journalism.”
For nearly 20 years, millions of Americans tuned in to the “CBS Evening News” to hear the day’s major events as reported by Cronkite, whose avuncular manner and deep voice made his show the top-rated news program from 1969 until he retired in 1981 and was replaced by Dan Rather.
Cronkite’s demeanor inspired the nickname “Uncle Walter” and when he signed off his newscasts by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” few doubted him.
During his years at the CBS anchor desk, Cronkite was regularly voted the “most trusted man in America” in opinion polls. Senator Robert Kennedy was so impressed he asked Cronkite to run for public office.
“I don’t understand my impact or success,” Cronkite once said. “That my delivery is straight, even dull at times, is probably a valid criticism. But I built my reputation on honest, straightforward reporting. To do anything else would be phony.”
Writing in a blog on www.huffingtonpost.com in March 2006, Cronkite explained his signature “the way it is” signoff by saying, “To me, that encapsulates the newsman’s highest ideal: to report the facts as he sees them, without regard for the consequences or controversy that may ensue.”
Born November 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Missouri, Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. became a United Press correspondent in 1939. He was one of the first journalists accredited to American forces after the United States entered World War Two in 1941.
Cronkite flew on the first bombing raids over Germany, parachuting into the Netherlands with the 101st Airborne Division and landing with Allied troops at Normandy, but he never thought himself brave in World War Two.
“Personally, I feel I was an overweening coward in the war,” he once said. “I was scared to death all the time. I did everything possible to avoid getting into combat.”
‘IF I‘VE LOST CRONKITE ...’
Cronkite joined CBS News in 1950 and hosted public affairs programs. In 1953, he began narrating the long-running “You Are There” series, which recreated historical events.
He took over the CBS anchor chair on April 16, 1962, and his stirring reports on issues from the space program to the Vietnam War often had as much impact as the events themselves.
Cronkite grew teary and his voice cracked as he told the nation in 1963 that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
After watching the bloody 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a disillusioned Cronkite told his viewers:
“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of American leaders, both in Vietnam and in Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. ... It seems now more than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in stalemate.”
Cronkite said in 2006 the Tet report was his favorite story and many believe it led President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election in 1968. Johnson was quoted as saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
When he retired from the anchor job, Cronkite had expected to still get special assignments and projects from CBS and was disappointed it did not work out that way.
Cronkite, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981, spent his later years making documentaries, writing books, giving speeches and exercising his passion for sailing. He also campaigned against global warming and spoke out against the Iraq war.
Cronkite’s wife of 64 years, Betsy, died in 2005 from cancer. They had three children.
Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Peter Cooney