The First Anchorman Ever Was Not Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite is widely referred to as the world’s first anchorman. But a man named John Cameron Swayze might have beat him to the punch

Walter Cronkite on television in 1976. Image: Library of Congress

What’s the difference between an “anchorman” and an “anchor man”? Turns out, the space makes a difference. On the air long before Ron Burgundy ruled the San Diego evening news, Walter Cronkite is widely referred to as the world’s first anchorman. Cronkite’s style and ease earned him the title of “most trusted man in America.” He was the host of network television’s first half-hour daily news program. (There had been 15 minute news programs before.) He announced the assassination of JFK, reported on Watergate and brought the whole nation news from Vietnam. His signature sign-off—”And that’s the way it is”—was heard by millions.

But  a man named John Cameron Swayze might have beat him to the punch. Here’s Swayze in 1954, reporting on something called the “Camel News Caravan.”

In a presentation planned for the American Journalism Historians Association conference, historian Mike Conway will present his research on Swayze. Indiana University explains how Conway got interested in Swayze in the first place:

While conducting research for his 2009 book, “The Origins of Television News in America: The Visualizers of CBS in the 1940s,” Conway found evidence that the term “anchor man” had been used to describe someone who had been on television years before Cronkite.

Like a detective, Conway pursued the mystery and 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.

Camel News Caravan (sponsored by the cigarettes, hence the name) was first a radio program, before making the transition over to television in December of 1948.

But most people probably don’t remember Swayze as a news anchor, but instead as an ad man for Timex.

Where does the term “anchorman” come from anyway? Ben Zimmer at Slate explains:

Anchorman (also written anchor man or anchor-man) has been anchored in the English language for about a millennium, though its meaning has varied considerably over the years. In an Anglo-Saxon glossary dated to the 10th or 11th century, the word ancor-man is given as a translation of Latin proreta, meaning the person on a ship who is literally in charge of the anchor. Anchorman also accrued a number of figurative uses in the pre-television era. It could refer to the person at the end of a tug-of-war team or to the last team member to play in a sequential sport like relay racing or bowling. More generally, the most important member of any sporting team could be called the anchor or anchorman. Not all senses of the word have been so positive, however: In the U.S. Naval Academy, the midshipman graduating at the very bottom of the class is known as the anchorman and gets recognition for this dubious honor during the graduation ceremony.

Zimmer, to his credit, awarded the first modern anchorman title to Swayze before Conway’s research. But even if Swayze was first, Cronkite was certainly “the most trusted man in America.” Here’s a compilation of memorable moments delivered by the anchorman, put together after his death in July of 2009.

As Cronkite said “old anchormen don’t just fade away, they keep coming back for more.” Kind of like a Timex watch?

More from

Walter Cronkite and a Different Era of News
Amy Henderson: That’s The Way It Was: Remembering Walter Cronkite

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.