There was an ‘anchor man’ before Walter Cronkite, says historian

Walter Cronkite was the first “anchorman,” but John Cameron Swayze was an “anchor man” before him. That’s according to Indiana University journalism professor Mike Conway, who’s presenting a paper about Swayze at the American Journalism Historians Association’s conference this month.

Indiana University’s George Vlahakis sends a press release with some Swayze details. The professor, he writes, “discovered to his surprise that in October 1948, the NBC quiz show ‘Who Said That?’ began referring to Swayze as their ‘anchor man.’ The quiz show featured a ‘quotesmaster’ and four panelists. Swayze — who also was a news broadcaster on NBC’s top rated Camel News Caravan — was the permanent panelist.”

The program first aired on radio before becoming an early TV staple, and as the panelists were introduced on the Oct. 1, 1948, radio broadcast (it premiered on TV two months later), the script had a new description for Swayze, who was “holding down the anchor man position.”

After coming across that first reference to Swayze as “anchor man,” close to four years before Cronkite was given the title, Conway began searching for more scripts and documents relating to the quiz show. Pulling together documents from a number of archives, he pieced together broadcasts, NBC internal memos and documents, scripts, audience mail and news coverage at the time to show that for close to three years, on both radio and television, Swayze was known as the “anchor man” on “Who Said That?”

Here’s a video of Swayze reporting on the “Camel News Caravan” in 1954 (love the packs of ciggies on his nameplate). Conway notes that show “did not have its premier until February 1949, several months after the term started being used on the quiz show.”

Swayze was later a pitchman for Timex.

(Ben Zimmer called Swayze the first anchorman in a 2009 piece for Slate.)

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  • Anonymous

    Swayze smoked & promoted Camels, as I recall. My cigarette back in the day. Anchorman probably snuck over to newscasting from sportswritings, where it was long used to describe a key position in, for example, relay racing, baseball, tug of war (a popular 19th century sport), and before that as a sailing term. Yes, the man that operated the anchor. Dan

  • Paul Steinle

    John Cameron Swayze was the “smoking anchorman.” HIS NBC network news program was sponsored by a cigarette company (at some point), and he had a lit cigarette at his side while reading the news. He was one of the first news readers on TV (along with Douglas Edwards on CBS), but he probably did not deserve the title “anchor,”which Sig Mickelson reportedly bestowed on Walter C. for his early presidential convention coverage.