"Cronkiter" update

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As I reported here earlier this week, I used my most recent Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus to debunk a widely circulated myth about Walter Cronkite: that in Sweden (or Holland) news anchors are known as "Cronkiters" (or "Kronkiters"). I got the opportunity to talk about this linguistic legend on the NPR show "On the Media," airing this weekend and available online here. I also address the shaky claim that the word "anchorman" was coined for Cronkite in 1952, the topic of a recent piece I wrote for Slate. I'm starting to worry that I'm going to get a reputation as some sort of nitpicking Cronkite-hater, but I'd like to think Uncle Walter would appreciate my fact-checking of his mythos.

In my original round of research, the two earliest examples I found for the "Cronkiter" story (claiming its use in Sweden) were in Gary Paul Gates' Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News (1978) and David Halberstam's The Powers that Be (1979). As I mention in the "On the Media" interview, I contacted Mr. Gates to find out where he got the story from. It turns out he had read it in an early excerpt of The Powers that Be that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1976.

So Halberstam's piece in the Atlantic would appear to be the birth of the legend in its printed form, though Gates did say that Cronkite had told him he had heard of the Sweden anecdote, as had Cronkite's producers Ernie Leiser and Les Midgley. Nobody could remember where the story had originated from, however — including Halberstam, when Gates asked him about it a few years after their books were published. Since Halberstam passed away a couple of years ago, I'm afraid we'll never know where the anecdote first came from. Like many urban legends, the origins of this factoid will remain murky, even if we can trace how it has subsequently spread, like epidemiologists on the trail of an out-of-control virus.

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8 Comments »

  1. Haarball said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 6:45 am

    I'm just a mere Norwegian, but I think I would have heard of this term had it existed. Cronkite is not particularly famous in scandinavia, as far as I know.

  2. Yuval said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    Maybe it was popular in the 70's? These things fade away sometimes. For example, if no good enough suggestion for "anchorman" in Swedish was made by then, Cronkite might have filled the vacuum.
    Just speculating, though.

  3. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    Haarball, nothing "mere" about you. Your weighing in on the myth made me think of a possibility that your Kroner could have played a tangential role, because Americans familiar with your currency might logically accept Kronkiter as Nordic-sounding, based solely on its phonetic similarity to Kroner.

    Why Sweden? As the most populous Nordic country, it tends to be confounded in American minds with both Norway and Denmark, another nation that circulated Kroner .

  4. Faldone said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    Although we know with certainty that the word anchorman predates Walter Cronkite by at least a millennium, is there any possibility that its first use in reference to the news reader position it now occupies was for Mr. Cronkite? And when was the first use of anchor to refer to a main store in a shopping mall?

  5. Joshua said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

    Faldone: The OED draft additions of June 2007 cite a 1939 ad in the Los Angeles Times as its first use of the word "anchor" in relation to a tenant:

    "New Income Building.. — good anchor tenant — excellent investment."

    The next cite in the OED, and specifically referring to a shopping mall's main store, is from 1975. However, Google News finds cites for that meaning going back as far as 1967, and maybe farther.

  6. steve m said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    What about the famous quote attributed to LBJ, but in many different versions, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

  7. Karl Weber said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

    In one of his baseball books, Bill James tore apart Halberstam's SUMMER OF 49, showing that it contains many inexcusable errors of fact. I'm beginning to wonder whether David Halberstam was just a surprisingly sloppy researcher.

  8. Pål said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 6:40 am

    The wierd thing about this hole story is that Cronkite actually visited Sweden several times.
    In the 60ties he did a two part series for cbs called "Sweden -Trouble in Paradise" sponsored by The Prudential Insurance Company. And later a similar thing for PBS that was called "The Vikings".
    Perhaps these travels originated this myth in some way…

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