On July 20, 1969, three American men landed on the moon. As we approach the 50th anniversary of this giant step forward for mankind, there will be no shortage of TV specials looking back on the day. CNN, Discovery, National Geographic Channel, PBS, and the Smithsonian Channel are just some of the networks planning specials. It is only fitting that TV networks will mark the achievement in the weeks leading up to the anniversary, given the role TV networks played in bringing the nation together in the summer of 1969.
Expect to see a lot of Walter Cronkite, CBS News’ anchor of the era, in the lookbacks. When Apollo 11 launched, he was host of the top-rated broadcast news program, having eclipsed longtime NBC rivals Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. In fact, Cronkite’s CBS audience for the moon landing was more than the combined total for NBC and ABC that day, further cementing his legacy as the leading TV newsman for the next decade and “the most trusted man in America.”
Cronkite grew his leading viewership base in the decade leading up to the moon landing via his coverage of President John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, followed a few years later by his reporting on the deaths of Robert Kennedy and then Martin Luther King in 1968.
The day JFK was shot, Cronkite had been at the wire machine at CBS when a bulletin of the President’s shooting came across. Cronkite, eager for CBS to be the first network to report the event, scrambled to get on air. There was a problem, though – a television camera would take at least twenty minutes warm up at that time. Cronkite headed to the CBS Radio booth to report the events, played via audio over the television. CBS got Cronkite on the air few minutes later, pre-empting the daytime soap “As the World Turns.” He read the news bulletins as they came in, sometimes with calm and at times with his voice cracking, taking off his glasses to wipe his eyes.
By 1969, Cronkite had established himself and his nightly news program as leaders in the field. Their coverage of the death of American figures, coupled with coverage of the Vietnam war, led to Cronkite being firmly in the ratings lead. Viewers counted on the calm demeanor of “Uncle Walter”, and tuned in on July 20 expecting nothing less, from a self-appointed expert on the space program.
CBS was the first on the air with coverage of Apollo 11 that Sunday morning, July 20, around 8:30am. Walter Cronkite settled in to the anchor desk around 11am, and was on the air almost straight through to 2:15am ET on the 21st, when Neil Armstong set foot on the moon. Cronkite had already established himself as an on air endurance champion, in 1952 with the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
He cheered along with us. At 2:35 in this retrospective, above, from Katie Couric, he breaks from his newsman role, into American space fan, smiles, and say, “Well, for thousands of years now, it’s been man’s dream to walk on the moon. And right now after seeing it happen, and knowing it happened, it still seems like a dream.”
As retired Astronaut Wally Schirra said, during the CBS coverage, “Thank you, television, for letting us watch this one.”