“Old iron pants” Cronkite

I noted a documentary on Texas water problems, narrated by Walter Cronkite. Okay, no kid in college today remembers Cronkite on the news every night; it’s likely that most of our high school students could not identify him in any way.

Walter Cronkite with NASA manned-flight capsules

Walter Cronkite anchoring coverage of a NASA manned space flight, for CBS News (Gemini Mission series?); CBS News Photo via NASA

Cronkite was the most respected man in news through the 1960s and 1970s. Recruited to CBS during World War II, Cronkite is famous for his sign-off — “And that’s the way it is . . .” — well remembered for his announcement of the death of President Kennedy, remembered among newsmen and space aficianadoes for his coverage of NASA’s glory days, and remembered for his post-Tet Offensive judgment announced in an on-air editorial that the American public had not been getting the facts about the Vietnam conflict, and that the U.S. could not “win” such a war. Because Cronkite’s credibility was so great, his turn on the view of the winability of Vietnam carried a lot of public opinion with him. When Cronkite’s views on the war turned against it, America turned against it.

So, it would be nice if students had a passing familiarity with the Cronkite story.

When I found Cronkite narrating a Texas Parks and Wildlife documentary, at 91, it pleased me.

But, looking for a short bio to link to for the post, I found this 1996 interview with Cronkite, introduced by a biographical sketch, including this piece of information:

Most recently, Cronkite, affectionately nicknamed “Old Iron Pants” for his unflappability under pressure, has recorded the many significant events of his distinguished career in his autobiography, A Reporter’s Life (Knopf, 1996).

What? How does “Iron Pants” relate to unflappability?

It doesn’t. Someone has cleaned up the story for public consumption. But the original story isn’t all that profane or racy, either.

During the political conventions of the late 1950s and 1960s, the three commercial networks, later joined by PBS, would camp out at the convention halls. Someone would anchor the broadcast for the network — Huntley and Brinkley for NBC, the current news anchor for ABC, and Cronkite for CBS — and the coverage frequently would take a couple of hours in the afternoon, and then go through the entire prime time hours (hey — it was late summer during rerun season; who cared?).

The anchor booths often were suspended capsules up in the rafters of the convention center; bathrooms were a long way from the anchor booths. Huntley or Brinkley, as a team, could take a break and take a stroll to relieve himself while his partner carried on. ABC sometimes brought in one of the roving reporters from the floor, or a guest anchor, to give their anchor some time out of the booth.

Cronkite soldiered on alone. He was called “Old Iron Pants” because he seemed to have no need to take a break to relieve himself.

This story was old by the time I covered the Democratic National Convention in New York City in 1976. One network reporter swore that, during the 1972 conventions, a group of reporters counted the coffees and waters going into Cronkite to see if he was doing some sort of fluidless sprint — he matched the other anchors drop for drop of consumption. So, in 1976, the rumor was that Cronkite had to have a private bathroom built into the anchor booth somewhere.

No one could find it.

One reporter for a New York station swore he’d met Cronkite in a restroom, but no one believed him. No one else in the room at the time could say they had also met Cronkite — no corroboration, no credibility.

And so the legend of “Old Iron Pants” grew, bolstered by stories from old reporters unfettered by Snopes.com. Cronkite’s on-air brilliance, and ability to cover hours of conventions at a stride, were made possible by a bladder of legendary strength, if you listened to the old reporters wax on about the issue. “Old Iron Pants” is a nickname that has nothing whatever to do with reportorial ability, talent or luck. It instead refers to the ability of Cronkite to stay in the game while everyone else had to make a visit to the, uh, clubhouse.

This biography says Cronkite was “unflappable?” No, that doesn’t begin to tell the real story. Cronkite was stalwart, a rock unmoved by waters, gauging the political tides while unaffected (on-air) by his own.

At least, that’s the way I got the story. Anybody got a citation to something more reliable, and different?

As Joseph Pulitzer once said, “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!” Let’s tell the whole truth.


Immediate update: Good grief! “Affectionately named ‘Old Iron Pants’ for his unflappability under pressure” may appear more often than “Cronkite” on Google. Is this another case where the polite, euphemistic explanation has supplanted the more raw, more sensible real explanation?

8 Responses to “Old iron pants” Cronkite

  1. […] at the Bathtub:  “Old Iron Pants Cronkite,” “Cronkite narrates Texas water supply […]


  2. Stu Dio says:

    From the reading I’ve done of the various biographies of CBS veterans and histories of CBS News, Cronkite’s wire service breeding of wanting to have a beat on every story fit right in with Mr. Paley’s egomania for the network to be the leader, and Frank Stanton’s drive for supremacy. The likely apochryphal program length of “NBC plus 15 minutes” was a force hard to be matched.

    I’ve also heard the story that an elderly woman called CBS News and wanted to know if it were true that Cronkite actually was sitting onf a potty chair. Since there were staffers crawling around under the desk passing him notes, I’m certain if there had been one there, they would have reported it.

    I also recall him saying that he generally followed the same diet fed to the Mercury astronauts by NASA of low fiber and high protein during his broadcasts to avoid any complications.

    A fine piece and very entertaining.


  3. eyeingtenure says:

    I don’t know if you trust Wikipedia, but there was the Office of Censorship during World War II. Details are hazy, too, but at least one thing is certain when considering reporters: they were bound by good taste much more so than Vietnam.

    Moreover, reports, if not in newspapers than certainly in news reels, consciously did not impede the war effort on the home front.

    This is all little stuff. The biggest point is that Vietnam was a war where the citizens saw more than ever before, and that exposure to the grisliness, with the advent of television, was ever more immediate and vivid.

    The Spanish-American War had nothing if not jingoistic propaganda. It was started by a newspaper man, even if the “I’ll supply the war” anecdote is probably apocryphal.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Most of the WWII reporters I spoke with said there wasn’t really much censorship, especially in Europe. When they moved with the troops, such as on D-Day, they were asked to keep details secret. But otherwise, they were much on their own to find their own stories and report what they saw. Press credentials don’t count for much in the U.S. Nothing to revoke, since there are no licenses. Roosevelt was in Washington. The war was in Africa, Italy, France, and in the case of my old friend Frank Hewlett, in the Philippines and Burma.

    But they were different wars. There was fighting for territory, and advances and retreats were often very clear. In Vietnam, and now in Iraq, there are no frontlines.

    I think Vietnam was the first time that so much politics was mixed into the war (I wonder if there are good reports of the reporting in the Spanish-American War . . .). Spin became an issue, and the Pentagon didn’t like their inability to spin the news. That becomes more important if you aren’t making good news.


  5. eyeingtenure says:

    With Vietnam, the government had no sanctions, really, on the media coverage. The press was limited only by its good taste. People saw war news every evening, rather than just reading it in the newspaper or seeing a carefully crafted, government-approved news reel.

    As late as the Korean War, the government had strict, direct control over the media. In Vietnam, the government didn’t. There was, simply put, too much coverage, and it was a hell of a lot grislier than the WWII-time propaganda.

    The Creel Commission during WWI was a textbook case of government control and censorship of the media.

    The point I was trying to get across is that Wilson — and later, Roosevelt during WWII — acted as a wartime president who used it to carefully selected reporters and limited coverage. Write something bad about the war, you had your press credentials revoked.

    Vietnam didn’t have that. For the most part, at least as far as the government was able to mold it, coverage was laissez-faire.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Creel Commission is not triggering anything here. What was that?

    The specific issue with Tet was that we’d just had about three months of Johnson telling us we could see “the light at the end of the tunnel,” with the command of the military up on Capitol Hill telling Congress we were winning the war, and so on. Then, at the beginning of Tet, all hell broke loose. The Viet Cong attacked all over South Vietnam, especially in Saigon. They overran the U.S. Embassy compound. It raised questions about just how much progress had been made in securing the nation from VC forces.

    Cronkite made a trip. What he got in the official briefings was not borne out by what he saw out touring the countryside. Cronkite concluded that what the officials were saying, and what we were hearing from Johnson, was at odds with what was really going on. See “credibility gap.”

    Too much information about the grisliness of war? The networks wouldn’t show dead people, nor would the newspapers, generally. The Pulitzer went to a photo showing an execution, but the victim of the execution was technically still alive when the shutter was tripped.

    There was a lot of news; the Pentagon wished it could control the flow better, but it couldn’t.

    Oh — was the Creel Commission the bunch that recommended “embedding” reporters with the troops going into Kuwait, and Iraq? I don’t think the issue was grisly, so much as the issue was control. The Pentagon insists that the U.S. actually won the battles of the Tet Offensive; the problem is that, even if that is true (and I believe it is), there was almost no way to win the war. Preventing the Tet Offensive would have provided hope; simply winning it was losing.


  7. eyeingtenure says:

    I know Walter Cronkite. That is, I know of him.

    Wasn’t the problem with ‘Nam that people were getting too much information about the grisliness of the war? Avoiding that kind of thing is what the Creel Commission was all about, after all.


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