NEW YORK – Legendary figures sometimes find a few tall tales seeping into their obits when they die. Their legendary status invites it.
But the case of Walter Cronkite packs a special brand of irony.
Turns out, the anchorman who prided himself on accuracy helped perpetuate an unfounded claim that newscasters in Sweden and Holland had been nicknamed “Cronkiters.”
Cronkite wasn’t alone in this mistaken report.
Apparently, the first journalist to publish it was Pulitzer Prize winning author David Halberstam. In a magazine piece in 1976, Halberstam wrote that Cronkite’s international stature was such that, “in Sweden, anchormen came to be known as Cronkiters.” It was a tidbit Halberstam repeated in his classic 1979 chronicle of the modern media world, “The Powers That Be.”
The theory gained credence when Cronkite himself mentioned it in “A Reporter’s Life,” his 1996 memoir. He wrote that in Sweden “for some years, anchormen were called ‘Cronkiters.”‘
By then, the tale had also appeared in a 1978 history of CBS News. The Encyclopedia of Television included it in its entry on Cronkite.
When Cronkite died last month, the Associated Press published it in his obituary.
Turns out, no evidence nor accounts uncovered thus far confirm its truth. Not Cronkiters. Not cronkiters. Not with a “k” instead of a “c.” Not in Holland (which was added to the mix along the way) any more than in Sweden.
That’s really the way it is.
“I personally have never heard it,” Olof Hulten, a veteran communications researcher and media educator in Kalmar, Sweden, said when asked about the term “Cronkiter.”
“But he was a good anchorman, Mr. Cronkite,” Hulten added.
Meanwhile, Radio Netherlands Worldwide’s Expert Desk (which assists fellow media professionals elsewhere on the globe) similarly came up dry.
“No one (at Radio Netherlands) has heard of the term,” said Michael Walraven in an email. “I would assume that the term in Holland is unknown.”
Also likely to remain unknown is how this tale got started. Its two most prominent proponents are unavailable for questioning – Halberstam died in 2007 and Cronkite died July 17.
But why the myth of “Cronkiter” took hold is a no-brainer. Maybe literally.
The story was not only delightful but seemed plausible enough. It served the narrative of Cronkite and the national respect accorded him, especially in tributes appearing at his death. Darned important people vouched for it.
Most of all, it had been around long enough to seem like unassailable fact to those who had already “known” it for years.
Then, upon Cronkite’s death, questions were raised and debunking began.
At the heart of the inquiry was Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and editor of its online magazine, who wrote about “The Mystery of ‘Cronkiters.”‘
Then, last week, Zimmer paid a visit to public radio’s “On the Media.”
“I was not able to discover any evidence in Swedish, Dutch or any other language that news anchors were ever called Cronkiters,” he told host Bob Garfield on the broadcast.
Speaking from his New York office Wednesday, Zimmer said he’d never heard of “Cronkiter” (in any variation) until after Cronkite’s death. That’s when his linguistics odyssey began.
“I was trying to find just a little bit of evidence that would justify this term,” he said, adding, “It’s still a mystery.”
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