Last week, after the death of Walter Cronkite, I wrote about how two words seemed irrevocably linked to the great newsman: avuncular and anchorman. Obituaries claimed that the term anchorman was first coined to refer to Cronkite, but as I wrote in Slate, this isn't exactly true: there were earlier "anchormen" on television, even if they didn't play quite the same coordinating role as Cronkite and his emulators. The Associated Press obituary, which was picked up by news outlets around the world, followed up the anchorman claim with another linguistic nugget about Cronkite, and this one is on even shakier factual ground.
Here is the fourth paragraph of the AP obituary, as it appeared in the Chicago Tribune:
Cronkite was the broadcaster to whom the title "anchorman" was first applied. In Sweden anchors were sometimes termed Kronkiters; in Holland, they were Cronkiters.
Other versions of the AP obit made the assertion about Sweden and Holland even stronger, as with the Boston Globe's rewrite:
Cronkite was the broadcaster to whom the title "anchorman" was first applied, and he came so identified in that role that eventually his own name became the term for the job in other languages. (Swedish anchors are known as Kronkiters; In Holland, they are Cronkiters.)
That makes it sound as if Kronkiter and Cronkiter are the standard terms for news anchors in Swedish and Dutch. But native speakers of those two languages have spoken out in various online forums to say that those words are unknown to them and unrecorded in any language references. (Check out discussions on LEO, GameDev, Cool Swede, and Wordie.) A commenter on a post of mine at Language Log provides an authoritative debunking:
Google "cronkiter" and you'll find all hits are in English. Smells of myth. I, Swede, 66, multilingual professional translator, have never seen or heard that word in any language. I'm afraid (read: convinced) that Mr. C is totally unknown by an overwhelming majority of Swedes.
So how did this factoid spread, to the extent that it would get featured so prominently in his obituaries? I've looked for early "vectors" (to use a term from urban folklore), and the first propagator of the claim that I can find is Gary Paul Gates in his 1978 book, Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News. After repeating the oft-told tale that anchorman was "coined to describe the role Cronkite first assumed at the 1952 conventions," Gates writes:
As the term became ingrained in the vocabulary of television news, Cronkite was perceived as its embodiment; indeed, anchormen in Sweden came to be known as "Cronkiters."
Then in his 1979 book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam wrote of Cronkite:
[B]y the late sixties he had probably been on the screen more than anyone else in the world. In Sweden, anchormen were known as Cronkiters.
[Late update! Halberstam actually got there first, because he published this part of his book as an excerpt in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1976. I got in touch with Gary Paul Gates, and he said he first read about "Cronkiters" in the Atlantic excerpt.]
And in 1980, Canadian journalist Peter Trueman further embellished the Sweden story in his book Smoke and Mirrors:
Walter Cronkite is perhaps the best-known anchorman that television has yet produced. He is known far beyond the boundaries of the United States. As a matter of fact, he is so much a standard of the profession that in far-off Sweden, separated from the CBS viewing area by an ocean and a language, anchormen are known as "Cronkiters."
Interestingly, in a 1994 article in the Toronto Star, Trueman toned down the claim:
During his tenure, his fame and influence were so widespread that the name Cronkite became synonymous with TV newscaster. I don't know whether Scandinavians, for example, still call their news readers "Cronkiters", but they did while Walter was in his ascendancy.
But it might have been Walter Cronkite himself who did the most to popularize the story, or at least the Swedish part. In his 1996 autobiography A Reporter's Life, Cronkite wrote the following, after saying that he was "the first bearer" of the term anchorman:
Sweden was a little slow to adopt the term. There, for some years, anchormen were called "cronkiters."
When did the Netherlands enter the picture? British journalist Anthony Holden added the Dutch angle in his 1984 memoir, Of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Princes:
In Holland, the land of his fathers, the word for anchorman is 'Cronkiter'.
At some point "Kronkiters in Sweden, Cronkiters in Holland" became such conventional wisdom that it even entered scholarly reference works:
Swedish anchors are known as Kronkiters, while in Holland they are Cronkiters.
—Albert Auster, The Encyclopedia of Television (2004)
In Sweden, for example, news anchors are called Kronkiters. In Holland they are called Cronkiters.
—Anthony R. Fellow, American Media History (2004)
In Sweden and Holland, news anchors are called Kronkiters and Cronkiters, respectively.
—Brian T. Kaylor, Encyclopedia of Political Communication (2007)
So how did all these smart people — journalists, academics, and Cronkite himself — get caught up in a language legend that has no clear basis in reality? Well, it's possible that Cronkiter/Kronkiter was used by someone in Sweden or elsewhere, perhaps as a playful ad-hoc neologism, and that mistakenly got picked up by a CBS News correspondent (and then by Halberstam, Gates et al.) as if it were a universal, generic term for "anchorman." If it really did enter circulation, the life of Cronkiter/Kronkiter must have been quite brief, since it gets nary a mention in current and historical sources from Sweden, the Netherlands, or any other nearby country.
None of this should undercut the significance of Cronkite's career and his place in journalistic history. But shouldn't we honor his great legacy of accurate and trustworthy reporting by checking this stuff out?
[Update, Aug. 1: I got to talk more about the "Cronkiters" story on the NPR program "On the Media." Listen here!]
[Update, Aug. 5: Today, the Associated Press reported on my investigation of the "Cronkiter" myth, admirably acknowledging its own role in perpetuating the story. And now the debunkage has reached Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" on MSNBC — I'm honored to be his "second best person in the world."]
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer