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In Memoriam: Walter Cronkite, 1916 – 2009

Portrait of Walter Cronkite. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH; di_00086.
Portrait of Walter Cronkite. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH; di_00086.

The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History mourns the death of Walter Cronkite, one of the twentieth century's most eminent pioneers and leaders in television broadcast news.

Cronkite, the highly respected managing editor and anchor of the CBS Evening News, became known as "the most trusted man in America" who ended every broadcast with his signature line, "And that's the way it is." In his role at the helm of the CBS Evening News for nearly two decades, Cronkite directed the network's coverage of such significant news stories of the 1960s and 1970s as the presidency and assassination of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the historic peace accord between Egypt and Israel, and the nascent and heady days of U.S. space exploration.

Walter Cronkite interviewing President John F. Kennedy, 1963. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH; di_2510.
Walter Cronkite interviewing President John F. Kennedy, 1963. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH; di_2510.

The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin is home to the personal and professional papers of Walter Cronkite. The relationship between Walter Cronkite and the Briscoe Center was forged in 1988, when the Center's Executive Director, Dr. Don Carleton, invited the legendary CBS newsman to make the Center the permanent archival home for his papers.

"Walter Cronkite actively supported and maintained a continuing interest in the Briscoe Center's efforts to document the history of the American news media," Dr. Carleton stated. "His support was critical to our success in building one of the most historically important collections of its kind in existence. My work with Walter to assemble his papers and to assist him in writing his autobiography is one of the highlights of my professional life.

Walter Cronkite reporting on Project Mercury, May 1961. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH; di_00794.
Walter Cronkite reporting on Project Mercury, May 1961. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH; di_00794.

"In 2006, when NASA presented Walter with a moon rock in recognition of his coverage of the space program, Walter selected the Briscoe Center to serve as the permanent custodian of the lunar sample," Carleton noted. "The Briscoe Center and The University of Texas at Austin have lost a deeply treasured supporter, and I have lost a close and wonderful friend."

Walter Cronkite during an interview for WKY radio, 1937. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH; Box 3y374.
Walter Cronkite during an interview for WKY radio, 1937. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH; Box 3y374.

The Cronkite collection, measuring more than 290 linear feet in size, has become the bedrock of the News Media History archives at the Briscoe Center, considered one of the most important archives in existence covering the history of television journalism. Materials begin with Cronkite's early life in Houston and his student days at The University of Texas at Austin, and include his work as a correspondent for the United Press International covering World War II and the Nuremberg war crimes trial. The majority of the papers, however, deal with his career with CBS News from 1950 through his retirement in 1981 as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

 

Walter Cronkite. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH.
Walter Cronkite. Walter Cronkite Papers, DBCAH.

In 1989, Walter asked Carleton to assist in the research and preparation for his autobiography. For a period stretching over four years, the two met for two or three days, sometimes longer, for Carleton to interview him and to record the recollections of his extraordinary life and career, resulting in more than sixty hours of recordings and hundreds of pages of transcript, which Cronkite used to write A Reporter's Life. Published by Alfred Knopf in 1996, A Reporter's Life shot immediately to the top of The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. It remains in print thirteen years later. The interviews were equally important in support of the eight-part television series Cronkite Remembers, which was broadcast on The Discovery Channel in 1996 and for which Carleton served as a historical advisor.

The Briscoe Center is currently developing Cronkite: Eyewitness to a Century, a major exhibit scheduled to open at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in May 2010. The exhibit will document the life and times of the legendary newsman with artifacts and archival material from Cronkite's papers, as well as other treasures from the Center's collections. In addition, Dr. Douglas Brinkley, a Distinguished Fellow of the Briscoe Center, is writing a biography of Cronkite based on the papers.

Dr. Don Carleton and the entire staff of the Dolph Briscoe Center extend their sincere and heartfelt condolences to the Cronkite family.

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