“The Most Trusted Man in America”

walter cronkite

Walter Cronkite, the legendary broadcast journalist on CBS Evening News for 19 years, has often been described as “the most trusted man in America.” He reported on major historical events such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, and the Vietnam War. It’s been said that his authoritative speaking style was what inspired his listeners to trust him as a reliable and steadfast source of information.

So what is it about Walter Cronkite’s style and voice that earned him such a title? To find out, we used our quantified communications technology to analyze the content of Walter Cronkite’s most famous broadcasts and his vocal delivery of these memorable events. And for comparison’s sake, we benchmarked Mr. Cronkite against current broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper.

After analyzing transcripts of Cronkite and Cooper’s broadcasts, we found Walter Cronkite’s spoken content to be 30% more trustworthy than statements from Anderson Cooper. This was partly due to his increased use of cognitively complex language (cognition refers to mental processes) – he provided insight to his thoughts and opinions on the stories he would cover. For example, when covering the Vietnam War, he said “But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Walter Cronkite’s unique and highly recognizable voice also contributed to his “most trusted” title. After benchmarking his voice against the voice of Anderson Cooper, we found three distinguishing factors: a high harmonics-to-noise ratio (HNR), increased vocal energy, and a slower rate of speech.

  • Mr. Cronkite’s HNR ratio was 27% higher than Anderson Cooper’s, indicating a more harmonic voice. Every voice has a fundamental pitch that the human ear can hear. There are other accompanying frequencies that are either in harmony with the fundamental pitch, or are considered to be noise. Most people prefer to listen to a voice with more harmonious frequencies.
  • Mr. Cronkite’s vocal energy was 283% higher than Anderson Cooper, showing that he used more breath support, variation in amplitude, and pauses to emphasize key points and phrases while he spoke.
  • Mr. Cronkite’s average rate of speech was 160 words per minute, which is much slower than Anderson Cooper’s average of 215 words per minute. Psychology research has found that slower rates of speech increase listener comprehension, deepen a listener’s respect for the speaker, have a calming effect, and therefore increase a listener’s willingness to trust in a speaker.

In the age of cable television, 24-hour news cycles and social media, it’s not surprising that America’s audio preferences have perhaps shifted to crave the faster and less complex speaking style of broadcast journalists today. Still, we’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t agree that Cronkite’s voice was the voice of this nation during some of its most formative years. And tonight, when the news cycle is once again filled with heated political banter, shock-jocks and headline stories of Kate Middleton’s fashion choices, it’s hard not to wish that the steady, thoughtful, and yes, trustworthy voice of Walter Cronkite would reappear once more.