The Cigarette Company That Reinvented Television News

The Cigarette Company That Reinvented Television News

Why you should care

Sometimes innovation in the media space can come from unlikely sources.

This OZY series explores how institutions are fighting for public trust.This OZY series explores how institutions are battling declining trust — and what's replacing them.

Something about it today feels as wrong as smoking on an airplane.

The makers of Camel cigarettes bring the world’s latest news events right into your own living room …

It might be the cigarettes. But it’s more than that.

Sit back, light up a Camel …

A voice of authority intones from behind a news desk.

… and be an eyewitness to the happenings that made history in the last 24 hours.

Sure, we’re used to awkward host-read ads on podcasts, and the multiplicity of “sponsored content” adorning our news media, but this is different. This is a nationally televised anchorman — that paragon of public trust and gravitas — telling viewers to smoke ’em if they’ve got ’em. The voice of authority is a Kansan named John Cameron Swayze, the host of NBC’s Camel News Caravan, which debuted on American television screens in 1949. Swayze would prove to be a news pioneer, a trailblazer in a seersucker blazer. And though we may cringe or chuckle at the Camel cigarette references adorning the nightly news, private sponsorship was essential to launching the anchorman and the broadcast journalism endeavor we know today.

The only news figure permitted to be seen smoking a cigar was Winston Churchill …

When legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite retired from CBS News in 1981, a whopping 86.9 percent of Americans, according to a Harris poll, thought he could be trusted to present a “balanced treatment of the news.” How things have changed. According to a recent Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult survey, only 31 percent of Americans trust the major television news networks “a lot,” with NBC’s Lester Holt registering as the most-trusted TV news personality, being trusted “a lot” by just 32 percent of respondents. Unsurprisingly, Cronkite, who once earned the moniker the “most trusted man in America,” is also widely believed to have been the first to be called a news “anchor.” But, as Mike Conway discovered in researching his book, The Origins of Television News in America, the first to assume that banner was someone who was on television years before Cronkite: John Cameron Swayze.

Television news in the early 1940s was often just someone on camera reading the news off the wire, says Conway, a journalism history professor at Indiana University. It really wasn’t much different from televised radio. CBS tried to turn the nightly news into a true visual medium during the 1940s, but it was NBC, thanks to the Camel News Caravan, that really put television news and its first anchorman on the map.

Advertisers paid for (and dictated) all kinds of early television programming, including the news. The tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds handed its own news production over to NBC in 1949 with the company choosing both the name of its new nightly news show and its face: Swayze. Impeccably dressed, with a handsome face and a folksy voice, Swayze had been a radio newscaster before becoming a permanent panel member on NBC’s quiz show Who Said That? (where he had first been referred to as the show’s “anchor”). Debuting on Feb. 16, 1949, and running every night at 7:45 pm, Swayze and the Camel News Caravan pioneered a news format that is still predominant today. Anchoring the broadcast, Swayze would deftly read the news and hand over to NBC correspondents like David Brinkley with reports and video footage from other places across the world. Near the end of each show, Swayze would give a brief rundown of other stories, proclaiming, “Now let’s go hopscotching the world for headlines!”

NBC’s tobacco sponsors controlled more than just the show’s opening salutation. No video footage was allowed to contain No Smoking signs, and the only news figure permitted to be seen smoking a cigar was Winston Churchill. The network was also not allowed to broadcast other news programs from 6-11 pm each evening. When NBC asked R.J. Reynolds if it could broadcast special news reports when the Korean War started in 1950, the advertiser demurred. So they didn’t.

Gettyimages 514981118

John Cameron Swayze, reporting the news on NBC, sponsored by Camel cigarettes.

Source Getty Images

The makers of Camel cigarettes may have placed a smoking straightjacket on NBC’s editorial content, but the influx of serious corporate dollars helped create modern television news. Camel’s sponsorship allowed NBC to expand its news at a time when TV was still losing money: NBC, unlike CBS, now had the money to build out a regular news program with 18 mobile units and 16 reporters. During this key period, says Conway, the networks also started to realize how viewers at home personally connected to those like Swayze who were coming into their living rooms every evening, and that this sort of familiarity and intimacy not only bred trust but also an incredibly loyal viewership.

Swayze himself was replaced by Brinkley and Chet Huntley in 1956, and left journalism to become even more famous … as a pitchman for Timex watches, including the famous commercials in which Swayze intoned that “Timex takes a licking and keeps ticking!” Televised nightly news programs have also taken their fair share of lickings in recent decades, but have continued to tick. Part of the reason for that is the degree of trust and familiarity — even at lower post-Cronkite levels — that people still feel for those who deliver the news. “Leaving people feeling good,” Swayze once observed. “That’s my role.”

And that’s the story folks. Glad we could get together …

Swayze’s evening signoffs are also eerily similar to ones used today. Maybe the more things change, the more they do stay the same, even in broadcast news.

… This is John Cameron Swayze saying good night for Camel, the cigarette that gives you more pure pleasure because no other cigarette is so rich tasting yet so mild as Camel.

On second thought, perhaps a little change is good.

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