Was Cronkite really the first "anchorman"?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 18 2009 9:46 AM

Was Cronkite Really the First "Anchorman"?

How we came to use the term.

In the news reports on Walter Cronkite's death, you often hear that he was the original "anchorman." The Baltimore Sun's obituary states, "The Missouri native was so fundamental to the concept of TV news that the word 'anchorman' was coined to describe his role at the 1952 national political conventions." Did the term anchorman really originate with Cronkite?

Not exactly. Anchorman (also written anchor man or anchor-man) has been anchored in the English language for about a millennium, though its meaning has varied considerably over the years. In an Anglo-Saxon glossary dated to the 10th or 11th century, the word ancor-man is given as a translation of Latin proreta, meaning the person on a ship who is literally in charge of the anchor. Anchorman also accrued a number of figurative uses in the pre-television era. It could refer to the person at the end of a tug-of-war team or to the last team member to play in a sequential sport like relay racing or bowling. More generally, the most important member of any sporting team could be called the anchor or anchorman. Not all senses of the word have been so positive, however: In the U.S. Naval Academy, the midshipman graduating at the very bottom of the class is known as the anchorman and gets recognition for this dubious honor during the graduation ceremony.

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In the early days of broadcast television, the anchorman usage common in relay racing and other team sports came into circulation in discussions of various panel shows. John Cameron Swayze, a popular news commentator, was a regular on NBC's Who Said That?, a show in which panelists had to identify the authors of famous quotations. An article in the Washington Post on April 3, 1949, explained that Swayze was "anchor man in an otherwise changing team of experts." News panel shows had their own anchormen, and here the usage meant something more like "host." Correspondent Griffin Bancroft was identified as the "anchor man" of the CBS news show Capitol Cloakroom by the April 2, 1950, Post, while Lawrence Spivak served that function on NBC's Meet the Press, according to the New York Times of March 2, 1952.

But in the CBS telecast of the July 1952 presidential nominating conventions (both held at Chicago's International Amphitheater), Cronkite's pivotal role differed substantially from that of the more pedestrian panel-show anchormen. On March 13, the Chicago Tribune gave an early report of CBS's state-of-the-art plans for the conventions, already identifying Cronkite, the network's new Washington bureau chief, as "anchor man of the CBS crew." A day before the Republican Convention kicked off, on July 6, the Hartford Courant further explained that as "anchor man" Cronkite would be "coordinating switches from one news point or reporter to another."

In his memoir Tell Me a Story, CBS News producer and director Don Hewitt dimly recalls how Cronkite was dubbed "anchorman" at the '52 conventions: "Sig Mickelson, our boss, later claimed paternity for the term and may well have been right that he coined the phrase 'anchorman,' even though I thought I had." Convention producer Paul Levitan has also been credited. Whoever first gave the appellation to Cronkite was likely inspired by the earlier panel-show uses. Regardless of the term's provenance, however, Cronkite quickly became recognized as "not just 'an anchorman,' but 'the anchorman,' " in Hewitt's words. And, of course, when he began hosting the CBS Evening News a decade later, Cronkite cemented his place as the iconic anchorman of his generation.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Barry Popik and Fred Shapiro.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer for the Visual Thesaurus.

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