< Too Good to Check


Friday, July 31, 2009

The death of Walter Cronkite was announced shortly before 8 p.m. on Friday, July 17th. The longtime CBS Evening News anchor was an icon of the business, as big as it gets, really. But given our production schedule here at OTM, the news broke too late to be included on our show, and so we sat back that weekend and read the obituaries like everybody else, and learned a great deal. Did you know, for instance, that Uncle Walter is so identified with the news business that in Sweden an anchorman is called a "Kronkiter?" And speaking of anchorman, did you know that the word was coined in the '50s to define Cronkite’s role on broadcast TV? Turns out, despite what many media eulogies would have you believe, neither of those facts I just asserted are exactly true.

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, traced some of the myths surrounding the man who was once the most trusted in America. He joins me now. Ben, welcome to OTM.

BEN ZIMMER: Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with the Kronkiter bit. Read me, please, the excerpt from the AP obit. BEN ZIMMER: Well, the obituary that ran in many newspapers came from The Associated Press. The version that ran in The Chicago Tribune, for instance, said, "Cronkite was the broadcaster to whom the title ‘anchorman’ was first applied. In Sweden, anchors were sometimes termed “Kronkiters’", that's with a k. "In Holland, they were "Cronkiters.’" That’s with a C.

BOB GARFIELD: It scans. I mean, it sort of sounds possible. But what you did was go back to see if it was, you know, true. What did you discover?

BEN ZIMMER: Well, I was not able to discover any evidence in Swedish, Dutch or any other language that news anchors were ever called Kronkiters. So I tried to figure out, well, who started telling this anecdote? And when I first looked, the earliest example I could find was in a 1978 book called Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News, written by Gary Paul Gates, who was at one time a news writer for Cronkite. Then in 1979, David Halberstam wrote The Powers That Be, and similarly he had, in Sweden, anchormen were known as Kronkiters. It seemed that these were the earliest examples of this story being told. And what I did was I actually contacted Gary Paul Gates to find out where he got the story from, and it turns out he says he got the story from Halberstam.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Unfortunately, David Halberstam died about a year ago and you cannot go to him to find out where he came up with it. Now, let's assume that he did not make this up out of whole cloth; that somebody in Sweden at some point, maybe in a newspaper column or whatever, referred, perhaps puckishly, to one of their news presenters as a Kronkiter. But what process do you suppose that what may have begun with a single episode has come to be conventional wisdom in the obituary sphere for Walter Cronkite?

BEN ZIMMER: Well, I think that this is a classic example of an anecdote that’s simply too good to check. And since the late '70s, when it was first reported by Halberstam and Gates, it was picked up and embellished along the way. And in the '80s, Holland entered the picture, but this similarly does not have any evidence to support it, so that if you ask a native speaker of Swedish or of Dutch, hey, so a news anchor is called a Kronkiter in your language, they'll say, what are you talking about?

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Now, this is not an answer you give lightly. You have testimony from an actual Swede, [LAUGHING] do you not?

BEN ZIMMER: Yes, there was something that I wrote on a blog called Language Log. And one of my readers was Swedish and chimed in on this and said, I, Swede, 66, multilingual professional translator, have never seen or heard that word in any language.

[BOB LAUGHS] He went on to say that he was afraid that Mr. Cronkite is totally unknown by an overwhelming majority of Swedes.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so, so much for Kronkiters. How about the term "anchorman" itself? Anchormen, I guess, originally were men who hoisted anchors. I know in tug of wars — or would that be tugs of war — the guy at the end of the rope is the anchorman. Was Cronkite indeed the first news host to get that title?

BEN ZIMMER: Well, there’s a bit more truth to this story than the Kronkiter story. It is fair to say that the word "anchorman" was applied to Walter Cronkite beginning with the national political conventions of 1952, and it’s really the sense of anchorman that we're familiar with, someone who’s coordinating between the different news reporters and serves this sort of central pivotal role. But he was not the first person in television to be called an anchorman. There were certain figures on panel shows. So, for instance, the quiz panel show Who Said That? featured John Cameron Swayze, who himself was a news commentator, and they called him the anchorman of that panel. And, similarly, for news panel shows there were certain correspondents who were the sort of important correspondents on that show. One was Griffin Bancroft on the CBS show Capital Cloak Room. They called him an anchorman in 1950, so that’s two years before Cronkite.

BOB GARFIELD: Lawrence Spivak of Meet the Press?

BEN ZIMMER: Lawrence Spivak of Meet the Press was also referred to as an anchorman in early 1952. So by the summer of 1952, when Walter Cronkite was sort of being introduced to the nation —and this was a very important broadcast it was the first time that the political conventions were being telecast from coast to coast. They were very exciting conventions because there was real doubt about who would be nominated in these conventions — so he got a lot of exposure in the summer of 1952, and he was introduced as the anchorman of the broadcast. That really did popularize the usage, but it’s too much to say that it was actually coined for him. And whoever actually first called Cronkite an anchorman generally it’s held to be Sig Mickelson, who was the president of CBS News at the time — must have been drawing on these earlier uses coming out of panel shows and that sort of thing.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now there are a couple of other things widely reported about the life and career of Walter Cronkite. Was he indeed the most trusted man in America or did, you know, someone make that up, too?

BEN ZIMMER: Well, that one’s a little shaky also. The whole idea that he was the most trusted man in America came from a poll that was done in 1972 where the poll company wanted to determine the trust index of various public figures. And so, they had mostly politicians on this list, including Richard Nixon and various others, and so Cronkite beat out the politicians because generally people don't think of politicians as very trustworthy.

BOB GARFIELD: But nobody asked about Sandy Vanocur.

BEN ZIMMER: Nobody asked in that survey about John Chancellor of NBC, Harry Reasoner of ABC, so we don't actually know how he would compare at that time with these other news hosts. But from then on, he was simply known as the most trustworthy figure in America, based on that poll.

BOB GARFIELD: I hesitate to ask you for the moral to this story, but, you know, you have to see the irony in the idea that the death of one of the most important figures in television news has been widely reported [LAUGHS] with, you know, scant regard to the actual facts. That’s got to have a meaning larger than the particulars, no?

BEN ZIMMER: I think it does, and I think that we can best honor the great legacy of Walter Cronkite by making sure that this kind of reporting is accurate and is trustworthy. And, in fact, the Kronkiter story had been repeated by Walter Cronkite himself in his own memoirs. Even Walter Cronkite, trustworthy, avuncular Walter Cronkite, needs to be checked out to make sure everything is really factual.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, Ben, thank you very much.

BEN ZIMMER: Well, great. Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Ben Zimmer — and, by the way, Zimmer is the Dutch word for "authoritative" — is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus online at Visualthesaurus.com. Oh, and Zimmer’s not actually the word for authoritative.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Sarah Fidelibus and Kasia Gladki, and edited by — our senior producer, Katya Rogers. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. John Keefe is our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme.