“I’m a writer who works in television, not a television person who happens to write,” says John Chancellor. Earlier this year, Chancellor retired after 43 years at NBC News as a reporter, host of the Today show and NBC Nightly News anchor and senior commentator.
Reuven Frank, the former NBC News president who positioned Chancellor in the NBC Nightly News anchor’s chair, says, “Jack has done every job in the News Division except the technical jobs. He has written for other people. He has a great picture sense, and for a while he even edited film. He has also been a shop steward. He has been a reporter in the field on every kind of story from the capture of a murderer on the streets of Chicago to the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in Vienna in 1961. He was White House correspondent for several years.
“He was on the foreign staff, the domestic staff, the local staff, the network staff. He has traveled; he has stayed in the same place. The point is, he’s very well rounded. He can do more different things than anybody else I have ever worked with in news.”
With the wry candor that has distinguished his career, Chancellor recalls, “I started as a newspaper reporter and was fired from the Chicago Sun-Times in a big economy move. Suddenly, in 1950, there was this Big Bang in television news, and we were asked to invent what you see on the tube. It was a marvelous time. The word ‘anchorman’ did not exist. There wasn’t even a network line across the country. We had to cover the 1950 Congressional elections from Cleveland because that was as far west as the coaxial cable went.”
Chancellor notes that most of the professional news people in radio proved to be unwilling or unable to make the switch to the visual medium. As a result, he says, “the networks had to scratch for strays like me and some of the rest of us, truly, and most of us came from print. If television news in those days had been the French Foreign Legion, it would have attracted the same bunch of vagabonds, strays and ne’er-do-wells that made up the first generation of TV news people. It was like a Fellini movie.”
Recently resettled in Princeton, New Jersey, Chancellor continues to mix television assignments with writing, including a new edition of The News Business (co-written with Walter Mears). He is also the author of 1990’s best-selling political analysis, Peril and Promise.
Born in Chicago in 1927, Chancellor made the transition from print to network television via the Chicago bureau of NBC news. He was often seen on the Huntley-Brinkley Report as chief Midwestern correspondent. He gained notoriety in 1957 as the first television correspondent to cover a national crisis when he reported from Little Rock, Arkansas, during that city’s dramatic high-school desegregation.
“Jack and I have been friends for a long time, 25 or 30 years,” says David Brinkley, who co-anchored NBC’s evening newscast with Chancellor for four years. “He always did his job on a thoroughly professional level and was always very careful about the facts, very careful to be fair. In addition, Chancellor has a very attractive and engaging manner, and that is why he has lasted a long time. The audience likes him. He was a very easy-going and relaxed fellow. He was very easy to work with. We never had any difficulties of any kind. Jack’s writing skills are about as good as you can do in television. He is able to say a lot in a very short space, and that is the nature of television writing.”
Following stints as a foreign correspondent and reporter for Wide, Wide World, in 1961 NBC News president Robert Kintner recruited Chancellor to host the Today show.
“I was on my way back to my assignment in Moscow,” Chancellor recalls, “and Kintner met me in Berlin. He loved to go out on the town, and so we all went out on the town. I matched him joke for joke, and I think that’s when I got into his head. At that time, the News Division was taking over the Today show, and Kintner wanted a correspondent as an emblem of the News Division’s becoming more important at NBC. So I came back and soldiered on and did the Today show but managed to get out of it as soon as I decently could.”
Chancellor served as White House correspondent from 1963 to 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson pressed him to succeed Edward R. Murrow as Director of the Voice of America. Two years later, he returned to NBC. He has covered wars from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf.
While covering the 1964 Republican National Convention, Chancellor was escorted out of the auditorium by local police and coolly signed off his report by saying, “This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody.”
Says Frank, “The essence of Chancellor is that he wants to know everything. He has an almost boyish sense of wanting to know things. Everything. He is interested in normal news: police, crime, disaster, politics, government. But he is also interested in science and mathematics, art and music. He was one of the first people I knew to have a computer at home. There’s a lot of the Renaissance Man in Jack, but mostly it’s 360 degrees of curiosity.”
In 1969, Chancellor asked NBC News President Reuven Frank to short-list him for the NBC Nightly News anchor slot after Chet Huntley stepped down. Chancellor notes, “I didn’t want to be an old guy standing in front of some foreign ministry in the rain at 4 in the morning. I see versatility as the career path that everybody ought to have. By accident, I had more opportunities to do different things than many of my colleagues, but a network-level correspondent ought to be a decent host of the Today show, read the news capably as an anchor, and cover a revolution or a fire.
“A good reporter can do almost anything. And it was fun, the kind of fun where you get to do something exciting and turn to a friend and say, ‘They’re actually paying me to do this.’ I still feel that way.”
In 1970, Chancellor began a dozen-year stint as anchor and co-anchor of NBC Nightly News before becoming its senior commentator.
“The fun is not so much reading the stuff on the air, but in putting the broadcast together,” Chancellor says of being Nightly News anchor. “It's like building a Swiss watch every day.”
After seven years of anchoring, Chancellor says, “I got the itch. I wanted to do something else, and so NBC and I arranged that when I stopped anchoring I would become a commentator. I didn’t want to be the old geezer defending the top of the hill. The changeover took another five years, but it was a seamless transition when Tom Brokaw came in because I was anxious to do commentaries. I did that for 11 years. That’s a lot of commentaries.”
As one of the founding fathers of television news, Chancellor fondly reminisces about the news phenomenon that he has labeled “The ‘Hey, Martha,’ Factor”:
“That's when a husband is reading the newspaper, and he shouts to his wife, ‘Hey, Martha! Did you know … ?’ When I started anchoring in 1970 there was no all-news radio. There was no cable TV, and therefore no CNN and no C-SPAN. No newspaper with a national edition. No USA Today. There was no competition. It was wonderful! The networks could surprise the audience with news! Today, that wonderful surprise has all gone away. We had that, and it was glorious. I was the last to have that.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating John Chancellor's induction in 1993.