Today, all television network news anchors stand up to deliver the news to the small handful of old people still watching them. But in the 1970s, anchors sat behind a desk. Except this once.
OK, it isn’t fair to say the Internet is bad on history; it covers most of the big stuff. But, whereas every minute detail of every event in the 21st century is preserved in detail (admittedly, some of it only in the Internet Archive), I was astounded to find an epochal event, involving the Most Trusted Man in America, is, as far as Google knows, completely undocumented. So, it’s up to me.
Here’s how CBS describes the event: “CBS News presented a two-part, 22 minute, overview of the Watergate scandal in October 1972. The first segment was 14 minutes, the second was eight.”
No mention of the fact that Nixon persuaded CBS Chairman William Paley to cut the second segment down. More importantly, the press release makes no mention of the broadcasting first that took place that night.
I remember it well. I was in Edwin Diamond’s Eastgate apartment with my then-fiancé Sherry Grobstein. We were using the large, primitive videotape technology of the time to record the CBS Evening News for the MIT Network News Study Group (back in the days before you could just order a copy of network news shows from Vanderbilt).
We were news junkies in my childhood home; I had been watching NBC and CBS news since 1960. So, I gasped with surprise when Cronkite began the first Watergate segment. He stood up and walked across the studio to gesture at graphics. “Unprecedented,” I shouted. Edwin wasn’t there, so I tried to raise him on the phone. Sherry, not so much a news junkie, was unimpressed.
“What’s the big deal,” she asked? Many commentators then and now will say the big deal was that Cronkite devoted more than half of the program (the show was 22 minutes after commercials) to Watergate.
But to me, then and now, the big deal was that he took the never-before-seen step of standing to deliver the story, as if to say, “This is so important I’m going to do something I’ve never done, so you’ll sit up and notice.” No one, not Douglas Edwards, nor John Cameron Swayze nor Huntley nor Brinkley nor Harry Reasoner had ever come out from behind their desk on the air.
I am surprised and baffled that this move, much commented on at the time, is nowhere to be found on the open Internet. I assume it’s behind a paywall somewhere in a news organization’s expensive archives, but I’ve now laid it out for the researchers and essay-writing journalism students of the future; if they Google Cronkite and Watergate, and scroll down to the third or fourth page of results, they will end up here.