He was the consummate journalist, a plainspoken newshound known as the Most Trusted Man in America, but Walter Cronkite got his career going by faking it. In 1936, at age 19, Cronkite took a job simulating college football play-by-play for Kansas City, Mo., radio station KCMO. Working, at his bosses' request, as Walter Wilcox, Cronkite sat in a studio and sifted through sketchy telegraph reports from far-flung stadiums. His reporter's instincts helped fill the gaps. Cronkite asked marching band directors what music they'd be playing so he could describe halftime events. He called the wives of men he knew were at games, then told listeners what the fans were wearing. "I didn't need many facts," Cronkite told The Oklahoman in 2002. "[I] just used my imagination."
Cronkite, who died last week at 92, soon found his calling as an eyewitness to history rather than a reconstructor of it. He gained fame as a print correspondent during World War II, and his avuncular style as anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1961 to '81 soothed viewers in chaotic times. His coverage of landmark moments—the assassination of President Kennedy, the 1969 moon landing—was as iconic as the events themselves, but sports also played a role in Cronkite's career. In 1937 he was the first voice of Oklahoma football, doing play-by-play (in person) for a season. As ringmaster for CBS's coverage of the 1960 Winter Games, the first Olympics televised live in the U.S., he paved the way for hosts like Jim McKay and Bob Costas.
Cronkite was more than an athletic observer. As a young adult he raced British sports cars; when family life made him reconsider the risks of that hobby he took up sailing. "I love the challenge of the open seas, the business of confronting Mother Nature and learning to live compatibly with her," he wrote in his 1996 memoir, A Reporter's Life. There were and will be better sailors, but television viewers will never find a more compatible presence.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
In an ad on the Lions' website for streaming video of old games, fans of the team, which went 0--16 last year, were exhorted to RELIVE THE 2008 SEASON.
LEONARD MCCOMBE/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES (CRONKITE)
ANCHOR AWAY Cronkite was as assured on his yacht as he was behind a news desk.