When Walter Cronkite traveled to Saigon in 1965 to see the Vietnam War up close, the military brass rolled out the red carpet. “They were determined to give him the grandest VIP treatment you can imagine,” says Morley Safer, the 60 Minutes correspondent who had just opened the Saigon bureau for CBS News. And why not? Since taking the CBS Evening News anchor seat two years earlier, the newsman had gained so much trust from his nightly TV audience of some 20 million viewers (more than triple the current audience for the CBS newscast) that he’d acquired a loving nickname, “Uncle Walter.” But after a week of airplane rides and rah-rah interviews, “we were sitting there having a drink and he said, ‘Now, what’s the rest of the story?'” says Safer. “A lot of guys covering Vietnam didn’t want to know what was really going on. But Cronkite did. He wanted to know the truth.”
And once he had the truth in hand, be it about the first landing on the moon or President John F. Kennedy’s shocking assassination, it was Uncle Walter’s job to share it with the American people. For nearly two decades, long before the Internet and 24-hour cable news, Walter Cronkite—who died July 17 from cerebral vascular disease at age 92—had the power to move a nation. “Walter was always more than just an anchor,” says President Obama. “He was someone we could trust to guide us through the most important issues of the day; a voice of certainty in an uncertain world. He was family.”
Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was born in St. Joseph, Mo., in 1916, the only child of homemaker Helen Fritsche and dentist Walter Leland Cronkite. Deciding to become a reporter after reading a short story in American Boy magazine, Cronkite began working while enrolled at the University of Texas and dropped out in his junior year. “Covering the state capital was a lot more exciting than studying political science,” he once said. “Besides, I never went to classes, so I got awful grades.” In 1939 the fledgling journalist found a home at news agency United Press. The following year, he married advertising copywriter Betsy Maxwell, whose sense of humor he credited with keeping his ego in check during their 64-year union (she died of cancer in 2005).
By 1942 Cronkite was covering U.S. forces in World War II. “I didn’t recognize his greatness at that time,” says his friend Andy Rooney. “He was just one of us.” Not for long. In 1952 CBS gave him the newly minted title of “anchor” for its coverage of the Chicago national political conventions. Ten years later he took over the CBS Evening News before it expanded from 15 to 30 minutes. “He came into television news in its infancy,” says Katie Couric, who sits at the CBS Evening News desk today and is announced every night by the prerecorded voice of Cronkite himself. “He believed in journalism and not opinion.”
Indeed, Cronkite was so vigilant about presenting the news objectively that most viewers had no idea whether he was a Republican or a Democrat (he was, in fact, an Independent). But when announcing President Kennedy’s death in 1963, not even he could keep from choking back emotion. “There was something quite elegant about how he handled it,” says Safer. “There was an Everyman’s elegance about Walter: a sense of what the country aspires to be at its best.”
Cronkite passed the anchor baton to Dan Rather in 1981 and later formed a production company that produced over 100 documentaries for PBS and Discovery. But nothing meant more to Cronkite than his kids—Nancy, now 60; Kathy, 58, an author and lecturer on mental illness; and Walter III (“Chip”), 52, a documentary producer—and his four grandkids. “I never had a burning desire to be a grandparent,” he told PEOPLE in 1986, “but now I feel it’s one of life’s great pleasures—feeling those loving little hands patting my face.”
In his final months, Cronkite was seen with Joanna Simon, the sister of singer Carly Simon. And although he suffered from the effects of dementia, he seemed in good health as recently as late June, when Rooney visited him. “It didn’t occur to me,” says Rooney, “that he was about to die.”
It may not have occurred to Cronkite, either. “The last time I had dinner with him,” says Safer, “he said, ‘I’ve got to get back in the office and bang out some stories.’ All the old instincts were there.”