The day Walter Cronkite thought he was finished as a journalist

Walter Cronkite in his younger days
Walter Cronkite in his younger days

It is reassuring to each generation that many of the giants we admire and respect had humble beginnings. That means there is still a chance, a reason to aspire, to work hard and achieve.

Walter Cronkite was such a giant.

But there was a time that even he had his doubts about whether he was destined for a career in the field of journalism. He told this anecdote in 2002 at the Washington convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Cronkite began his storied career in newspaper journalism in Texas, first in Austin and then his hometown of Houston, where he was a cub reporter at the Houston Press. This was in the 1930s.

“And oh, God, how I loved it. How I loved it,” Cronkite told his audience of awed and nostalgic newspaper editors. “In those days, of course, before the quiet and the rugs on the floors and the computers, the city room was a pretty darn noisy place. It was a wonderfully noisy place: the clatter of all the typewriters in the city room and the pounding beat of the press service machines over in the corner. The filth, if you please, added to the atmosphere quite a lot, you know, all those rolled-up balls of copy paper on the floor where the disgusted writer had missed the wastebasket with his copy that would never see light of day. The swinging doors out into the makeup room. The loud roar of the Linotype machines. The smell of hot lead. The smell of printer’s ink. Even the smell of fresh newspaper roll. It was exciting.”

Norman Rockwell with a microphone instead of a paintbrush.

But this was also the age of the autocratic editor whose bark was his bite. Cronkite’s was Roy Roussel.

“He called me up, and he was livid with rage,” the great newsman recalled the scene from his youth. “He said, ‘You had a mistake in the clearinghouse numbers yesterday.’ Now, the Houston clearinghouse number was how much money cleared through the Houston banks that day. We printed it in the last edition of the paper. It was a one-line item with a one-line head, Clearinghouse. The line was, ‘The Houston clearinghouse returns today were ...’ In this particular case, I think I wrote $5,732,342.67. He said, ‘You had an error on the clearinghouse number. That number was 64 cents, not 67 cents. My God, man, don’t you understand what you’re doing here?!’ It was such a bawling out that I went back to my desk pretty convinced that was my last day at the Press and that I’d apparently blown the entire economy of Houston.”

He could not for the life of him understand why he was so upbraided over a 3-cent error.

It is hard to conceive of Cronkite as ever having been naïve, but it took awhile for someone to get around to explaining to him the gravity of his inaccuracy and the cloud it cast over the reputation of his newspaper.

“As near as I could tell I was through at the Press, and I didn’t know what I’d really done,” he recalled. But later at the Prohibition-era drinking hole: “I asked the first reporter I sat next to, ‘What was this all about, this three cent error I made?’ And he looked at me with that look of a senior looking at a freshman with this obvious naiveté I had shown. He said, ‘Well, kid, you know why we print the banking clearinghouse numbers, don’t you, each day?’ I said, ‘Well, no. I kind of wondered that.’ And he said, ‘It’s the number on which the local lottery pays off.’”