07/18/2009 12:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Walter Cronkite, Most Trusted Man in America

Walter Cronkite, iconic news anchor for CBS, died July 17 at age 92. For my generation of news junkies Cronkite and the Chet Huntley-David Brinkley team at NBC defined television news. (ABC was a late bloomer-- we didn't get ABC in south Alabama in those days.) Tonight, in the shadow of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it is impossible not to remember our personal history through the images of Cronkite or Huntley or Brinkley on network TV telling us the great stories of the '60s and '70s. We don't have to romanticize or idealize the shortcomings of network news to appreciate the jobs they did. 
Cronkite has often been called "the most trusted man in America", and the surprisingly limited amount of public polling on this topic backs that up. The earliest poll I could find was an April 1974 Virginia Slims poll, done by Roper, that asked how much the respondent respected as list of public figures. Cronkite scored 60% "a great deal" and another 31% "somewhat" with only 4% "not at all". Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was close to Cronkite at 56/29/8. No one else was close. President Richard Nixon, 4 months from resignation, scored 24% "a great deal", and 41% "not at all". 
Cronkite was also among the most recognizable figures of the 1970s. A July 1975 Roper survey found 93% could correctly identify him as a TV journalist. 6% said they didn't know and less than 1 percent thought he was anything else. Harry Reasoner was correctly identified as a TV journalist by 82%, but 5% thought him a sports star. Actual sports stars, tennis champion Chris Evert and pitcher Nolan Ryan, were correctly identified by only 56% and 23% respectively. The one person in the survey who was the near equal of Cronkite was Johnny Carson. Like Cronkite, 93% correctly identified him as a TV entertainer, but 3% thought Carson was a TV journalist.
In the month before Cronkite's retirement in 1981, a Louis Harris & Associates poll probed Cronkite's standing with the public: "If you had to choose, who would you say is your favorite nightly network TV (television) news anchorperson--John Chancellor, Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Roger Mudd, Frank Reynolds, or Max Robinson? " A full 50% picked Cronkite, with 12% for Chancellor in second place.
Asked specifically if Cronkite was "someone you could really trust" 81% said they could, and on 12% said not. (The question was a rating with excellent+pretty good as trusting, and fair+poor as not trusting. Breakdowns in the original categories are not available.) Sadly, no other news anchors were asked about on this question so we lack comparison. Even more poeple, 86%, said Cronkite presented a "balanced treatment of the news". Only 9% said not.
In April 1985, four years after he left the anchor's desk, a Roper/US News & World Report survey rated a number of TV journalists. The Excellent/Good/Don't Know ratings were
Cronkite 47/37/5
Rather 28/44/10
Jennings 22/36/28
Brokaw 18/37/28
Koppel 15/32/43
Lehrer 7/11/74
Finally, in July 1985 the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press (predecessor to the current Pew center) sponsored a poll by Gallup that was explicitly comparative. Their question was "Please rate the believability of the following people, using this same scale of 4 to 1 (where '4' means you can believe all or most of what they say and '1' means you can believe almost nothing of what they say."
These data are plotted in the figure above. Whether we look at percent in the most believable category or the mean score the order of results is essentially the same: Cronkite on top by a substantial margin. 
Most of those with low rankings are also not well known, hence a lower percent in the top category simply because few respondents know how to rate them. But this doesn't much affect the relative rankings, and doesn't touch Cronkite's dominance. If we redo the figure, calculating the percentage in the most believable category but omitting all those who can't rate the person, the basic chart is unchanged though some publicists will be pleased by improvement while others disappointed. (The correlation of raw rating and adjusted is .90, so the order doesn't shift in large ways in any case.)
So given the somewhat limited data available, the title "most trusted man in America" may actually have belonged to Walter Cronkite, at least among television journalists and a few other prominent media figures. None of these data, collected over 11 years, place Cronkite anywhere other that at the top of visibility and recognition. And the later data on quality and believability ranks him first in every measure.
That isn't a bad reputation to have created and sustained on the Evening News.