January 8, 2020

Eyewitness to history

When we think about the chroniclers of the passing scene, the witnesses to the cultural history of our times, how many of us think of John Charles Daly? And yet, once you think about it, he seems so obvious, I wonder why it took me this long to figure it out.

Most people probably think of John Daly as the urbane host of CBS's What's My Line? from 1950 to 1967, a job at which he excelled. But if you'd been around back then, you likely would have been familiar with a different side of John Daly: that of a newsman, first for CBS Radio, and then at ABC television. And as it happens, Daly reported on some of the biggest news stories of the era.

He became known to audiences as CBS's White House correspondent, where he announced many of President Roosevelt's speeches. Later, he moved to New York to become the anchor for CBS's long-running news program The World Today, and that's where Daly was on December 7, 1941 when he was first on the air with the bulletin that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.


During the war, Daly was a correspondent on the front lines in the European and North African theaters. In 1942, he was "one of the first to report. . .of the growing concerts regarding the Nazi treatment of the Jews" based on reports coming from unoccupied France. He was covering the American advances through Italy in 1943 when General George Patton slapped two soldiers he accused of malingering (they were suffering from "shell shock") and was one of the reporters who brought the story to the attention of General Eisenhower. (Daly agreed to sit on the story at Eisenhower's request; "I need this man. I can't win the war without Patton.") Back home, it was Daly who broke another story on CBS: the death of President Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945.


After the war, Daly hosted You Are There, the program that dramatized historic events as if they'd been covered on the radio. By 1952, Daly had moved to ABC, where he'd become vice president of news and public affairs, winning three Peabody awards, and he was anchor of ABC's evening news from 1953 to 1960. At Daly's suggestion, the network carried live coverage of Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings on communist infiltration of the Army; neither CBS nor NBC were doing so, and it was cheap programming for a network that was a distant third in the ratings. Daly's "worldly charm" was so apparent, NBC responded by replacing longtime anchor John Cameron Swayze with a team of anchors, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. In 1959, when Vice President Richard Nixon engaged Nikita Khrushchev in the famous "Kitchen Debate," guess who was there to cover it? John Daly. He wasn't one of the panelists of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, which might have been one of the few things he didn't do, but he represented ABC in the negotiations with the other two networks and the campaigns.

In his 17+ years on What's My Line?, Daly was witness to people from every segment of society: politics, entertainment, sports, and art. Joe Louis was one of the Mystery Guests, as was Colonel Sanders. Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Herman Wouk, Ronald Reagan*, Victor Borge, Lucille Ball, Walt Disney, Frank Gifford, Sean Connery, Gypsy Rose Lee, Edward R. Murrow, Carl Sandburg, Billy Graham, Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Jacques Cousteau, Chuck Yeager, Pearl Buck, Eleanor Roosevelt; all sat next to Daly as the blindfolded panel tried to guess who they were. Blonde bombshells, Supreme Court justices, political party chairmen, football heroes, various Congressmen and governors, television stars: they were all on What's My Line?, either as Mystery Guest or guest panelist or both. And Daly saw them all.

*Ronald Reagan wasn't the only future president to appear as Mystery Guest; on the syndicated version, which Daly didn't host, Georgia governor Jimmy Carter stumps the panel.

In addition to the celebrities, there were the ordinary people who made up the bulk of What's My Line?'s guests, and from that chair as moderator, Daly could see how the American workforce was changing, how jobs that were done by people in 1950 were becoming mechanized by 1967, and how women were increasingly present in jobs that had formerly been done exclusively by men. People working in the aerospace industry were now side-by-side with those twisting pretzels by hand; it had to be a profound demonstration of the new American economy, presaging perhaps the economy of today.

Daly's life at the center of things doesn't end here, though. After What's My Line? ended, Daly served as head of the Voice of America through 1968. His second wife, Virginia, was the daughter of Chief Justice Earl Warren, and it was Daly who served as an intermediary between Warren and the Nixon administration in negotiating the date of Warren's resignation from the Supreme Court. He was a member of the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors, and throughout the 1980s he hosted forums for the American Enterprise Institute; indeed, a 1982 forum he moderated was on the topic "Terrorism: What Should Be Our Response?"

What, then, do we have? As a newsman, John Daly covered the New Deal, Pearl Harbor, World War II, political conventions, and the Cold War. As host of What's My Line?, Daly saw most of the cultural icons and political leaders of the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention the changing work habits of Americans from the post-war boom to the space age. During these times, he was, in the words of authors Jeff Allen and James M. Lane, "one of the most well known and highly regarded people in the country." For over 50 years, he observed the evolution of trends in politics, entertainment, sports, and American culture itself. By any definition, it is a remarkable career. Does anyone else compare? The only name that comes to mind is Edward R. Murrow, whose impact was formidable, but I'm not sure even Murrow's experience equals the length and breadth of Daly's.

John Charles Daly died in 1991. He never wrote his autobiography, which is a shame, because it would have been one of the most fascinating cultural histories of the 20th century, by one of the most fascinating men of the century: a man who was an eyewitness to history. TV  

12 comments:

  1. This is a well documented and well written history of the United States, represented by the life of a truly awesome newsman.

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  2. What makes him special is his quality to make people feel human, no matter what vocation they followed. He is to emceeing what Lucille Ball is to comedy.

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  3. In the '50s, John Daly was ABC News, at least on TV.
    The network's nightly newscast was bare-bones, to say the least; Daly stood at a podium, reading the copy straight from the wires - no remotes, no correspondents, film and still photos borrowed from other sources.
    ABC's news department consisted mainly of radio and newspaper commentators who were trotted out for special occasions, like conventions and elections.
    Of course, back then the other nets weren't much more elaborate - CBS had the biggest setup, the Murrow Boys carried over from radio, plus connections with press services for news film and such.
    NBC spent the second half of the decade playing catch-up, which only happened when Huntley & Brinkley caught on.
    John Daly's idea to cover the McCarthy hearings live was an easy sale to ABC, which had little if any daytime programing at all at the time; competition came quite a bit later - and that's another story …

    By the bye - did you ever notice that Bennett Cerf was the only person to call him John Charles Daly?
    The ads all said John Daly and the News; the man always used just the first and last names.
    Even after he left ABC News, any public appearances were always as John Daly.
    Bennett Cerf's use of the trinomial was only in What's My Line? introductions - usually in a needling fashion.

    I've always found it curious that in the '50s, there was no concern about "the line between News and Entertainment".
    What was You Are There but a flat-out combination of the two?
    Ever see The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original with Michael Rennie - you know, the good one)?
    Next time you see it, take note of that opening sequence of the spacecraft landing in DC.
    Those are all real newsmen - Elmer Davis, H.V. Kaltenborn, Drew Pearson, later the voice of Gabriel Heatter - speaking seriously about a man from space, and there was no critical uproar at all.
    I could cite any number of other examples (notably the many movie and TV appearances of Howard K. Smith) but it's late and I'm tired …
    Anyway, think about it.

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    1. Yes - I've noticed that the work he did for the American Enterprise Institute was always published under "John Charles Daly," and I think Martin Gabel sometimes used all three names when he pinch-hit for Bennett (upholding Bennett's tradition), but I think most people tend to use it today precisely because of WML, which does make it something of an anachronism. Although, I also think people today use it to distinguish him from John Daly the golfer, who never reached his potential.

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    2. Fun Side Note:

      John Charles Daly fathered four sons, two by his first wife, two by his second.
      The sons were named (in order of appearance):
      John Neal Daly
      John Charles Daly III
      John Warren Daly
      John Earl Jameson Daly

      Apparently, this was a family tradition.

      Daly also fathered two daughters, Helene ("Buntsie") from the first marriage, and Nina Elizabeth from the second.
      Insert your own punchline here …

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    3. President Ford was the second President to be on WML. I never saw President Carter but I would love to see it.

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  4. Excellent piece, Mitchell. It's interesting to me that both Daly and Mike Wallace could host game shows (thought I guess 'quiz' or 'panel shows' sounds better) while maintaining their integrity and reputation as outstanding journalists. That certainly couldn't happen now - though these days I can think of several broadcast journalists who would be better suited to giving microwave ovens to screaming contestants than to reporting on world affairs.

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    1. Historical Note:

      In the '50s, Mike Wallace was known principally for his work on the entertainment side.
      I'm talking game shows, commercials, talk shows with his then-wife Buff Cobb, announcing radio shows like Sky King - that's how broadcasters built their careers back then.

      Fun Fact: circa 1957, Mike Wallace was hosting a hot-and-heavy interview show in New York, called Night Beat, which was about to go national - on the ABC network.
      John Daly wanted no part of Wallace or his show, so ABC signed Wallace to the entertainment side.
      Wallace was booked to be a Mystery Guest on What's My Line? -
      - and John Daly spiked the booking; he threatened to skip the broadcast if they went ahead with it.
      Wallace bowed out of Line, and that was that.
      Mike Wallace didn't become a "newsman" until he joined the CBS Morning News in 1963.

      Oh, by the way …
      While Douglas Edwards was anchoring CBS's evening newscast in the '50s, he put in a year as moderator of Masquerade Party.
      A year or so after he left that position, Edwards made a return appearance - as a disguised contestant.

      Back to John Daly:
      One of his game show stops was It's News To Me, wherein a celebrity panel tried to deduce how contestants had figured in news stories.
      When Daly went to ABC News, his replacement on It's News To Me was Walter Cronkite - who had also taken over the TV You Are There.
      (And this was long before he took over the CBS Evening News from Douglas Edwards.)

      Television!
      It's Fun!
      It's History!
      It's AMERICA!

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  5. Not sure how well known this fact is, but John Charles Daly appeared on the first episode of Green Acres. He was portraying a newsman telling the story of how Oliver Wendell Douglas left the rat race of New York City to go live on a farm. Pretty good stuff. That episode should be on ME TV in about a week and a half as they are winding down the end of the last season.

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    1. I've seen that, and it's very funny, as well as being one of the few instances in which we see John Daly in color. But you're right, I wonder how many people, outside of WML fans, are aware of that?

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    2. You can also see John Daly in widescreen color at the beginning of Bye Bye Birdie, covering the drafting of Conrad Birdie and its aftermath (showing utter disdain throughout).

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  6. Another tidbit on Daly involves his November 16, 1960 departure from ABC News owing to (depending on the source) network president Leonard Goldenson bringing Time magazine in to co-produce documentaries Daly had handled himself or the fact ABC was an hour late in starting their election night coverage because they didn't want to preempt The Bugs Bunny Show and The Rifleman, certainly a baffling at best decision even if the Kennedy v. Nixon race was a blowout instead of the nail-biter it ultimately proved to be.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!