05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
During World War II a glider of the American 101st Airborne Division made a hard landing in the Nether-lands. The young United Press reporter scrambled for his gear, snatched up his Olivetti and headed for the rendezvous point. "When I looked back," he recalled, "I found a half-dozen guys crawling after me. I'd grabbed the wrong helmet. The one I wore had two neat stripes down the back indicating that I was a lieutenant."
It was the last time Walter Leland Cronkite let authority go to his head. As the war started winding down, he received a $120-a-week offer from Edward R. Murrow at CBS. "At the time," Cronkite once said, "I was making $57.50 for UP." He stayed loyal to the wire service, but when the Korean War broke out in 1950, CBS promised to send him to cover it, and Cronkite signed on. He never made it to Korea, but a network star was born.
A new term—anchor—was coined to describe Cronkite's function while covering the 1952 political conventions, and it seemed tailor-made. He is remembered, more fondly as time goes on, as the avuncular figure who every weeknight brought Americans good and awful tidings, told them, "That's the way it is," and left them agreeing. In the lengthening history of TV news, nobody, not even Murrow, casts so long a shadow.
Even while TV anchormen grew to resemble each other in moderated looks and modulated voices, Cronkite stayed resolutely out of sync. The throaty voice betrayed his Missouri childhood. He said "speakeen" instead of speaking and he had a herky-jerky delivery: "As-stronaut John Glenn was to-tally unaware..." He wrote his own stuff, often did his own reporting, as with Eisenhower in Normandy (inset). He wore a moustache, went to church, smoked a pipe. He was crazy about his wife, Betsy, and their three kids. And he constantly fought the battle of the bulge: The 5'11" figure peaked at 200 lbs.
But there was plenty of gristle underneath the avoirdupois. As his annual salary increased (by the early '80s it would be a reputed $2 million), he was able to indulge a fondness for car racing—and got so good at it that he became part of the Lancia team in the 1959 Sebring 12-hour race. He lobbied hard to be allowed to rocket up on the space shuttle. He became a first-class sailor—and named his ketch Wyntje, in honor of an ancestor who journeyed to America from Amsterdam in the 1600s.
One family tradition—both his father and grandfather were dentists—Walter forswore, but he soon found that gathering news could be like pulling teeth. Nevertheless, whenever he tried on any other role he got into trouble. In 1954 Cronkite, complete with gag writer, was for baffling reasons tapped to go up against NBC's Today show. He lasted a few scant months. But when he was replaced by Jack Paar, an interesting protest letter arrived. A lady in Indianapolis predicted that Paar might work out "but won't be as good as you are—I know because I'm his mother." Unconvinced, Walter gratefully returned to what he did best—the news, straight and unvarnished.
But by 1960 NBC's innovative news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley was getting all the ink. For the 1964 Democratic National Convention, CBS decided to weigh its anchor and go with its own news team—Roger Mudd and Robert Trout. "It's their candy store," Cronkite shrugged, but the first week he was off the air 11,000 letters demanded restoration. At the next convention Walter was back behind the counter. And there he remained for the next 13 years, possessor, said Art Buchwald, of the only honest face on TV. Before his retirement at 65 in 1981, polls showed that Uncle Walter was the most trusted man in America. Some politicians even speculated about how he might look on the other side of the Oval Office. Still, he was not without detractors. Media guru Marshall McLuhan condemned him as "a radio figure" who "doesn't belong on the TV medium." Gen. William Westmoreland never forgave the dean of broadcast journalism for criticizing the American role in Vietnam. And Ted Turner groused at the awe bestowed on a talking head: "We didn't elect Walter Cronkite President of the United States."
But no one could be as casual about Cronkite as Walter. When he hung up his mike, he was asked about the attendant fuss. "Listen," he barked, "I'm a guy who is opposed to these 'media events.'...And this story of my retirement is a media event." Perhaps. But as one CBS executive put it, "All these years we have had only had two enduring symbols: the eye and Walter Cronkite. Now we have one."