In “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country,” Randy Newman wrote:
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free
In other words, we sure could use an anchor. Pity then, that we’ve now lost our first. As you will no doubt read in many places this week, the term anchor to mean a television news reporter was coined for Walter Cronkite. Although that’s not exactly true, it’s an apt descriptor of a man so many came to see as steadfast and as someone they could trust.
You could trust him because you got the sense that he wouldn’t go on the air with the story unless he was certain he had the facts. He went to Vietnam to see for himself before he proffered an opinion on the likelihood of the war’s success. Earlier, in one of his most famous on-air moments, during the coverage of the death of JFK, he refuses to announce that President Kennedy had died, even as it seemed inevitable. Upon learning that last rites had been administered, I believe that many a reporter would have gone ahead with reporting Kennedy’s death, but even in the face of that, and the news that CBS’s own correspondent Dan Rather had confirmed the death, Cronkite refuses to report it as fact until he had official confirmation. When he finally receives official word, he takes off his glasses and his voice wavers almost imperceptibly as he tells the terrible news.
Later, when Cronkite learned of the death of President Johnson, it was during a commercial break. When the break was over, again, Cronkite felt he didn’t have the full story. So, he essentially put the country on hold while he got it:
Can you imagine a reporter doing that today? Can you imagine a reporter we’d trust enough to let them?
Of course, his famous moments weren’t all tragedies. As this week is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo mission and because I feel a kinsmanship for Cronkite because of our mutual love for the space program, it is only appropriate to mention a moment when the man was momentarily rendered speechless. As John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University said, “He told the story of space in ways that spoke directly to us; there was no hiding behind opaque technical jargon. When he was excited, we were excited.” And speaking of that excitement–really, is there any reaction to the Eagle landing more perfect than “Oh, boy”? [Skip to 7:11 and try to remain unmoved.]
“Wally, say something, I’m speechless.” But who wouldn’t be? Man had finally sailed into the heavens, onto another planet. How blessed we were to have Walter Cronkite as our anchor.