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.