Peter Jennings (Ron Galella/WireImage)
As the anchor of ABC's World News Tonight from 1983 until his death in 2005, Peter Jennings was there for millennial America's biggest stories. His reassuring presence carried us through times of tragedy as he presented marathon news broadcasts, testing his own endurance in order to keep the public informed. When other journalists took breaks, Jennings stuck with us, offering his calm presence for long hours of breaking news.
Today on what would have been Jennings's 75th birthday, we're looking back at some of the biggest moments of his journalistic career.
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Born in Toronto, Jennings came to New York in 1962 to work for ABC. By 1965, the 26-year-old had been placed behind the news desk to become the country's youngest network news anchor ever. As he rose in the network's ranks, he became a foreign correspondent, leading to his first big breaking story – the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics. As Palestinian terrorists held Israeli athletes hostage, killing 11 Olympians and coaches, Jennings and his camera crew hid near the scene of the tragedy. They were able to provide clear video of the terrorists, and Jennings used his previous experience as a Middle East correspondent to thoroughly explain the situation to the U.S. audience.
As Jennings continued his foreign correspondent career, he covered big events like the hostage crisis in Iran and the assassination of Anwar Sadat. His fine reporting led to a very big job – sole anchor for ABC's World News Tonight. Back on North American soil and competing for ratings with NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather, Jennings soon became a favorite face on the nightly news. One of the events that helped solidify his reputation was the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In an early example of a marathon broadcast, he stayed on air for 11 hours to provide coverage of the disaster.
Three years later, Jennings would report on one of the biggest natural disasters of the 1980s – the Loma Pietra earthquake in San Francisco. Jennings was praised for his quick response to the news, scooping the other networks.
When the Gulf War began in 1991, Jennings broke into coverage to report the first exchanges of gunfire – and he stayed on air for 20 of the first 48 hours of the war, keeping the American public informed. He also began a tradition that he carried on for many years: interpreting big news events for children. When coverage of the Gulf War broke into Saturday morning cartoons, Jennings worried about the impact that the news coverage would have on young viewers. He addressed his own concern by creating War in the Gulf: Answering Children's Questions and airing it the following week during the weekend block of cartoons. In the years to come, Jennings would carry on his work of helping younger viewers understand scary topics with a number of news specials created just for them.
Perhaps Peter Jennings's finest hour as a news broadcaster was when he covered the horrific attacks that took place on 9/11/2001. In an effort described as "Herculean," Jennings remained on air for 17 hours to bring us the latest developments in the biggest news story most Americans had ever lived through. And he showed a vulnerability and humanity that made us love him even more when, after receiving phone calls from his children, he urged viewers to call their own children to connect with them in the wake of the tragedy.
Through decades of world events, Peter Jennings was here for us – a newsman like no other.
Written by Linnea Crowther