Television’s First Anchorman Wasn’t Walter Cronkite
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
While Anchorman 2 is underway in the studios, one researcher set out to assure everyone that neither Walter Cronkite, nor Ron Burgundy, was TV’s first anchorman, as it was really a quiz show panelist from 1948.
Swayze, an experienced print and broadcast journalist, was famous for his 20 years of Timex watch commercials, which included the catch phrase “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”
“A subtle competition took place during the last decades of the 20th century in interviews, memoirs and history books over the origin of what has become one of the most powerful positions in television,” Conway said in a statement. “Two of the most powerful people in television news at CBS in the 1950s clearly wanted the credit, but they also didn’t want to appear to be lobbying for the distinction.”
Most books refer to the first person to be called an anchorman as Walter Cronkite. Either Sig Mickelson, then president of CBS News, Don Hewitt, (who went on to create “60 Minutes”), or Paul Levitan, a news producer, have credit for creating the term during the 1952 political conventions.
Mickelson and Hewitt both took credit for inventing the term in biographies, while Levitan never said he came up with the idea. However, Cronkite said he was convinced Paul Levitan used the phrase first.
“What it is is a case of people wanting to have history told their way,” Conway said in the statement. “The Cronkite anchor origin story is very consistent in history books. I certainly accepted it until I started doing this research.”
Conway found while researching for his book “The Origins of Television News in America: The Visualizers of CBS in the 1940s” that the term “anchor man” had been used to describe someone who had been on television years before Cronkite.
He discovered that in October 1948, the NBC quiz show “Who Said That?” began referring to Swayze as their “anchor man.”
The quiz show featured a “quotesmaster” and four panelists. Swayze was a permanent panelist and was also a news broadcaster on NBC’s top rated Camel News Caravan.
The program first aired on radio before becoming an early TV staple, and as the panelists were introduced on the October 1, 1948 radio broadcast, the script had described Swayze as “holding down the anchor man position.”
After this discovery, Conway began searching for more scripts and documents relating to the quiz show. He found documents from a number of archives and pieced together broadcasts, NBC internal memos and documents, scripts, audience mail and news coverage at the time to show that for close to three years, on both radio and television, Swayze was known as the “anchor man” on “Who Said That?”
Conway found that Fred Friendly, who worked with Edward R. Murrow and was in the 1950s television program “See It Now,” came up with the idea for “Who Said That?”
“If you know anything about Fred Friendly, he had a very big ego like all of these other men that we’re talking about,” Conway said in the statement. “In my mind, if he had invented ‘anchorman,’ we would know it, but as far as I know, he never mentioned it.”
He said Friendly’s autobiography only mentions the quiz show in passing and that he wanted to be known for working with Murrow.
Conway began looking at the credits for the show and noticed that they credited Dorothy Greene Friendly, an established writer at Time-Life who became Fred Friendly’s business partner once they married. He believes that as the writer, she may have came up with the job description “anchor man.”
“Using the available evidence, the first, consistent use of ‘anchor man’ in American broadcasting did not describe Walter Cronkite and his role for CBS television at the 1952 political conventions, but instead applied to John Cameron Swayze and his position as the permanent, and most knowledgeable, member of a quiz show panel,” Conway said in the statement. “But it’s obvious that with Cronkite, the title of anchorman stuck, but he wasn’t the original.”
Conway will present his research, “The Curious Origins of Television’s ‘Anchor Man:’ A Quiz Show’s Role in Launching Journalism’s Most Powerful Title,” at the annual conference of the American Journalism Historians Association in Raleigh, N.C.