Journalism

55 Years Ago, The Kennedy Assassination Rocked TV News

November 22, 1963, the date of the Kennedy Assassination in Dallas, Texas, was the true birthdate of breaking news coverage on television.

I was not yet alive when the John F. Kennedy Assassination happened. But despite that, I’ve always been captivated by coverage of that horrible day.

Before that event, television had not yet had its real breaking news moment. One of the most convincing facts to support that statement came from the CBS newsroom in New York where Walter Cronkite covered the shooting. On television, CBS beat NBC to break the story by about a minute.

As the story goes, Cronkite was one of several near the news teletypes when the first bulletin came in announcing that shots had been fired at Kennedy’s motorcade.

Immediately, Cronkite wanted to get on the air.

Just as immediately, they realized they had a major problem: no camera was ready. At that time, they didn’t keep a studio camera in the newsroom where the CBS Evening News was broadcast. Cameras were wheeled in closer to news time.

And it got worse from there: once the camera arrived, it would need nearly 10 minutes to warm up enough for engineers to calibrate it so it could broadcast a reliable signal.

From that day on, Cronkite would later tell multiple interviewers, they made sure there was always a camera that was “hot” in the newsroom just in case.

But on that day, Cronkite was forced to break the news on television via a voiceover bulletin. CBS was broadcasting an episode of As the World Turns. Back then, soaps and most other shows were broadcast live.

In the middle of a piece of dialog from actress Helen Wagner, the picture switched to a slide with the CBS News Bulletin logo repeated in a diagonal line and Cronkite’s voice relaying the message.

Here’s how the soap fans saw that coverage begin:

I don’t remember now who I heard give the quote about television. It might have been CBS’s Bob Schieffer, who was then a reporter with the Fort Worth Star Telegram. It might have been Dan Rather. It might even have been Robert McNeil, who reported the events for NBC News.

In any case, whoever said it made a very interesting point: for some reason, on this particular story, people felt the need to gather in front of the television, not the radio.

Many of them were still watching CBS when Walter Cronkite read the flash confirming Kennedy’s death (at about the 5:00-mark in this clip:

As someone who has worked in television for more than half of my life, I’m fascinated by the coverage of the event. By today’s standards, of course, it’s very primitive. But given the limited technology of the time, it’s quite amazing they were able to cover it as well as they did.

That’s why this time of year, I’ll watch any documentary I can find on the coverage. (I tend to avoid the pointless conspiracy theory documentaries.)

My 3 favorite JFK assassination documentaries

There are three particular favorite Kennedy assassination documentaries I’ve watched countless times.

The first is called JFK: The End of Camelot. For some reason, the Discovery Network release never made it past its initial VHS release. That’s a shame because it was such a well-produced program that it wasn’t until after I’d watched it for the second time that I realized there was no narrator. The various witnesses, which included former Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, tell the story of what they saw and witnessed so completely that the program is a careful weaving of that testimony.

The second is called JFK: 3 Shots that Changed America. This History release is available on DVD and contains a great deal of news footage and interviews with eyewitnesses and those who experienced the shooting and its aftermath firsthand.

The third and final is called The Day Kennedy Died. I’m not sure why this documentary seems to have disappeared. It was available on Netflix for quite a while but they pulled it. It has been out of production for some time. This one did have a narrator, Kevin Spacey. I’d like to believe they wouldn’t pull such a powerful documentary because of accusations of inappropriate behavior against Spacey, but as well done a production as this was, its mysterious unavailability makes me wonder.

An unforgettable date

For a generation, it was one of those landmark dates when people would always remember where they were when they learned about it.

Prior to that, the biggest date was probably either April 1945 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia, or later that year when atomic bombs hastened the end of World War II.

Since that date, it might have been the day President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981 or the 1986 morning when the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

It’s hard to believe in has been 55 years since the day Kennedy died.

But in other ways, it’s hard to imagine, as much as the world has changed, that it has only been 55 years.

Were you alive when JKF was killed? Where were you when you found out?

2 Comments

  1. Every year on this anniversary, I post a photo I took that ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper when President Kennedy gave the Commencement speech at San Diego State University., 55 years ago.

    I was part of a team of staff photographers who covered the arrival, duration, and departure of President Kennedy in San Diego.

    Five months later, he went to Dallas, Texas.

  2. I remember when I got on the school bus everyone was crying, I asked what happened and they told me that the President Kennedy was shot.
    I was in gym class out on the athletic field when they announced over the the PA so I didn’t hear the announcement.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.