November 07, 2017
Hall of Fame

Chet Huntley and David Brinkley: Hall of Fame Tribute

Tom Link

“Their chemistry together surprised me,” Huntley-Brinkley Report producer Reuven Frank says of the men who changed the face of nightly network-news programs. “Something special happened when they were on together. Most pairs are nothing, but there was such a personal contrast between them: Chet was the traditional newsman; Brinkley, with his compressed style, was unique."

The first television-news superstars who had not already achieved fame on radio, Huntley and Brinkley revolutionized network-news programs during their 14-year run on the NBC program that bore their names. Recalls Brinkley:

We were the first news-news program on the air. Prior to us there was John Cameron Swayze, who thought he had to imitate movie-theater newsreels. They were phony, junky, planned events: ship launching, horse race, fashion show — that kind of junk.  We spent some time trying to figure out how to do the news, and what we did is now pretty much standard, what everyone does, probably because there’s no other way to do it. We had no precedent to go by, no history. We threw out the junky features and planned events and put on news. We made TV an important news medium.

They first came together in 1956, when both were being considered for the anchor position on NBC’s coverage of the national political conventions. Frank recalls his decision to pair them: “We couldn’t make up our minds whether we wanted Huntley or Brinkley; putting them both on solved the problem.”

Though both were experienced broadcast journalists, their backgrounds and personalities were remarkably different.

Huntley was born in 1911 in the small ranching community of Cardwell, Montana, where he grew up on the land and developed an almost Jeffersonian affinity for it. In 1968, Huntley wrote The Generous Years, a lyrical and emotional book about his fondness for Big Sky country and the personal relationships fostered in a small western community.

Working on the farm, he developed the look of a ranch hand and a friendly personality that remained with him even in New York at the height of his popularity in the mid-‘60s. “He was a tremendously outgoing man,” Frank says of Huntley, “who showed his liking of people. We used to call him ‘Lochinvar Come Out of the West.’”

After attending Montana State College and Seattle’s Cornish School of Arts, in 1934 Huntley earned a B.A. degree in fine arts from the University of Washington at Seattle. (In 1956 he would become the first anchorman with a college degree.) That same year he began his broadcasting career at a small radio station in Seattle.

In 1939, Huntley moved to Los Angeles, where he worked at CBS radio station KNX as a reporter and commentator. In 1942, he won a Peabody Award for a series he had written on prejudice against Mexican-Americans. He joined the ABC radio and television affiliates in Los Angeles in 1951 rather than take a loyalty oath at KNX. He extended his liberal reputation by speaking out against the then-popular Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In 1955, he joined KNBC (then KRCA), the NBC-TV Los Angeles affiliate, as a local anchorman, and the following April he began for the network a series of Sunday afternoon public-affairs programs called Outlook. His style was often favorably compared with Edward R. Murrow’s; his angular features and deep voice worked well on the air.

David Brinkley was born in 1920 in Wilmington, North Carolina, into a strict Southern Episcopal family, the son of a minor railroad executive who died when Brinkley was eight. From the beginning, Brinkley was a natural-born writer. He recalled to TV Guide in 1972:

I have always liked to write, all my life, and I remember writing a story, which I think I thought was funny. I took it to my mother, and she read it and handed it back and said, “Why are you wasting your time with that kind of nonsense?” And it was a long time afterward before I understood the cruelty of it, so I might in fact have spent all these years trying to prove her wrong. It is quite possible.

At the age of 17, Brinkley became a high-school journalist with the Wilmington Morning Star. After high school, he attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After military service in World War II, he spent a short time working throughout the South for United Press as a peripatetic one-man news bureau. In 1943, Brinkley became NBC radio’s White House correspondent and later, with Robert McCormick, appeared on a pioneering television-news program in Washington, D.C., seasoning his reports with funny stories and running gags. (His wartime years in Washington inspired his first book, the recently published bestseller, Washington Goes to War.)

With McCormick's departure for a European assignment, Brinkley, in 1951, became the White House correspondent for NBC-TV’s nightly news program, The Camel News Caravan, with John Cameron Swayze. There he developed political and social contacts that brought savvy insights to his authoritative reports. His laconic, sardonic style wasn’t like anybody else’s, and unlike most radio reporters then breaking into television, he used a cool, soft-spoken delivery that charmed the viewer with its quality and unmistakable rhythms.

In the months prior to the conventions, the two studied for their assignments, with Brinkley collecting colorful stories and anecdotes about prominent delegates, and Huntley learning more about convention procedures and national issues. Television critics around the country were impressed by their knowledge, poise, and wit, and the ratings were almost as encouraging as their reviews. They became the talk of the conventions, the proverbial right people in the right place at the right time.

Huntley's stolid demeanor lent to Brinkley's lighter, whimsical style; Brinkley’s sense of humor contrasted nicely with Huntley’s gravity. With Huntley’s grasp of the West's newly won political importance and Brinkley’s insights into Washington’s political shenanigans, they were an ideal blend. Plus, their smooth teamwork made them easy to watch night after night. Network president Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver, Jr., and other executives sensed they had discovered powerful new personalities.

Coincidentally during the summer of 1956, NBC was developing a plan to replace the increasingly hoary Camel News Caravan. With CBS's evening-news broadcast with Douglas Edwards a consistent ratings winner (like its entertainment division), and with ABC’s news with John Charles Daly far behind in third place, NBC decided to gamble with the new team.

From the start, Huntley and Brinkley revamped the news. Without overpowering narration and newsreel clichés that spoke of past events in the present tense, producer Frank introduced an immediacy to the broadcast by adopting an approach that advanced television news beyond the newsreel era.

Improved technology made it practical for Huntley to report national and international news from the communications center of the nation, New York, while Brinkley covered the national political scene from Washington, D.C. The cues “Chet” and “David” gave the program a veneer of cockpit-to-control-tower electronic wizardry, but they were also practical tools, serving as cues for AT&T technicians to switch cables from New York to Washington at the appropriate moment.

The pair closed with a light­hearted sign-off that soon became buzzwords, but which neither Huntley nor Brinkley was especially eager to deliver: “Good night, Chet.” “Good night, David. And good night for NBC News.”

Brinkley recalls his opposition to the close: “Reuven Frank thought it up, and I hated it. I didn't want to do it. Neither did Huntley. It didn’t look right for two males to tell each other good night on the air. I really didn’t like it. But he pushed and pushed and pushed. Finally he wore us down, and we agreed to do it. It became part of the language, which we didn't anticipate.”

The Huntley-Brinkley commentaries were what most distinguished the newsmen from their predecessors. Clearly more than two-dimensional newsreaders, Huntley and Brinkley were active, professional journalists, vastly knowledgeable and emotionally committed. Huntley extended his liberal reputation (though during the Vietnam War he became moderately hawkish), while Washington insider Brinkley maintained a populist approach to his commentaries (though he became moderately dovish about the Vietnam War). And Brinkley could be funny.

“I think my sense of humor helped,” Brinkley says:

Before we came on the scene, the most important person was Ed Murrow, and deservedly so. He was also very solemn, the Voice of Doom, “the world is coming to an end. …” But news is not just the bad stuff. The news is human experience, and a lot of it is funny. And I never saw any reason to keep it off because it happened to be funny. So I always, whenever I could, rounded out the program with a funny story. I think it helped. How much, I am unable to say.

Despite their convention success, Huntley and Brinkley's news program remained second in the ratings through the summer of 1957, when it failed to sell as much as a single ad. Reuven Frank remembers:

We weren’t popular in the beginning. In fact, we expected to be canceled. I had a tie-line in my office, and every Friday I would get together with Huntley and talk about our expectations with Brinkley in Washington. And every Friday we expected to be canceled. To this day, I cannot understand why we were not. By today's rules we would have lasted two months. But Bob Sarnoff and Pat Weaver made the decision to keep us on. I cannot believe there wasn’t somebody in sales saying, “Cancel those guys.”  But by the end of the summer of 1957 we started to take off.

In 1958, they pulled ahead of Edwards, and they were called everything from the “Gold Dust Twins” to “NBC's Mutt and Jeff.” The program won the initial Emmy for best news reporting series in 1958 and ran up a string of five consecutive victories until the category was dropped in 1964.

As their popularity grew, they became as famous as prime-time entertainers. Traveling with presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on a tour of West Virginia during the 1960 Democratic primaries, Brinkley attracted a bigger crowd than Humphrey and, for fear of upstaging any other would-be president, vowed never to go back on the hustings with a candidate again.

So great was their fame that at one of the Kennedy inaugural galas in 1961, Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle parodied the popular song “Love and Marriage” in their honor: "Huntley-Brinkley/Huntley-Brinkley/One is glum/The other twinkly. … ” Their ratings continued to grow during the early ‘60s, and at one point during the 1964 political conventions, they reportedly pulled a staggering 80 percent of the audience.

Adding to their credits as first-rate broadcast journalists, the pair also anchored several prime-time series. Outlook (which later became Chet Huntley Reporting) aired from 1956 to 1963 and offered interviews with newsmakers and documentaries about controversial subjects. From October 1961 to August 1963, David Brinkley’s Journal presented a potpourri of stories ranging from political reports to a profile of a professional wrestler; in 1962 and 1963 Brinkley’s program won Emmys in the category of outstanding public affairs programming.

Additional milestones followed: In 1961, Brinkley happened to be in West Berlin on the weekend that the East Germans suddenly erected the Berlin Wall. He filmed a report (now lost) as construction crews worked only a few feet behind him. In September 1963, following CBS’s lead one week earlier, The Huntley-Brinkley Report expanded to 30 minutes. The Kennedy assassination two months later put them on the air virtually around the clock for three-and-a-half days.

Though each rarely saw the other except on a monitor during their 14-year association, they remained friendly. “They didn't take themselves seriously,” Frank remembers. “They took their work seriously.”

In 1970, Huntley retired from the program to return to his ranch in Montana, where he died four years later.

Following Huntley’s departure, Brinkley continued to co-anchor the nightly news until 1979 and then appeared as the host of NBC Magazine until 1981. Later that year he moved to ABC and began his highly rated Sunday-morning political program, This Week With David Brinkley. He continues to contribute to ABC News specials, including political conventions, election results, and presidential inaugurations.

What was the key to the Huntley-Brinkley phenomenon? Says Frank:

We can guess forever, but nothing has worked since. It is not just putting on two people; it is which two people. We have tried lots of combinations: an older man and a younger man, a man and a woman, practically a horse and a dog, but nothing works. Maybe it was because Huntley was from Montana and Brinkley from North Carolina. Maybe it was because their names rhymed. I don't know.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Chet Huntley and David Brinkley's induction in 1988.

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