Longtime ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings, 67, died late Sunday at his home in Manhattan, four months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
The Canadian-born Jennings delivered the evening news to Americans nightly for 22 years. He also briefly served as anchor of the newscast for two years in the 1960s while he was still in his 20s, but became a correspondent in part because he thought he was terrible and would be fired. He returned to the anchor chair in August 1983 to become one of the best in the business for over two decades.
Peter died with his family around him, without pain and in peace, his family said in a statement. "He knew he'd lived a good life," the statement said. Jennings is survived by his wife Kayce Freed, daughter Elizabeth, and son Christopher.
"For four decades, Peter has been our colleague, our friend, and our leader in so many ways. None of us will be the same without him," ABC News President David Westin said Monday.
ABC broke into regular programming around 11:40 p.m. Sunday night to report the news.
Good Morning America anchor Charlie Gibson, who has frequently substituted for Jennings since April, anchored the 30-minute special report (Jennings himself had once anchored ABC's morning broadcast).
Ted Koppel, who joined ABC one year before Jennings in the mid-1960s, phoned in from Washington and reflected on Jennings, as did ABC News veteran Barbara Walters. Gibson's GMA co-host Diane Sawyer joined him on-set, visibly shaken.
Remarking on Jennings' good looks, Koppel reminded viewers that Jennings was a fresh-faced 26-year-old when he first sat in the anchor chair. Nightline devoted its Monday night broadcast to Jennings.
Walters said she and Jennings often showed up for the same stories and she admired his writing style. Throughout the special, ABC aired interviews with Jennings reflecting on his career and old pictures.
The other networks also interrupted programming to bring the news to viewers.
NBC anchor Lester Holt hosted a brief special report, as did CBS News' Melissa McDermott, anchor of overnight newscast Up to the Minute, although New York station WCBS elected to broadcast their own local coverage.
MSNBC and Fox briefly cut in with the story. CNN aired the most extensive coverage, at times simulcasting the ABC feed, a rarity. CNN continued with story, with Carol Lin anchoring, long after ABC returned to programming at about 12:10 ET. Headline News carried the CNN feed.
The Toronto-born Jennings was the son of Canadian broadcasting pioneer, Charles Jennings, who was that country's first national radio news broadcaster in the 1930's.
The younger Jennings, who transformed himself from a self-described "bored and lazy" teen to a top-notch reporter and ultimately urbane anchorman, started out on local radio in Canada in 1959, in part because a lot of national news avenues were closed to him.
By that time, his father was managing director of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp's English-language network. There was a rule prohibiting relatives from working in the same division.
After a couple radio jobs, Jennings moved into local TV and then, keeping the broadcasting firsts in the family, joined the newly formed CTV Television in Ottawa in 1961, where he was co-anchor of its first commercial national newscast.
Jennings joined ABC News in 1964, where within three days of joining up he was sent to Mississippi to cover the civil rights movement.
He almost didn't make the trip south. ABC had approached him about moving to New York along with a colleague. His friend said yes, Jennings declined, in part because he was intimidated by the move to the Big Apple, he told B&C in a 1986 interview.
"About six months later I broke out in a cold sweat," he said, and said 'Oh my god, what have I done."
What he did next was call up ABC President Elmer Lower and ask if the job was still open. It was.
Within a year ABC went on what Jennings described as a "youth kick," and the 26-year-old found himself tapped to anchor the then 15-minute evening news--Peter Jennings With the News from 1965 to 1967. The broadcast expanded to 30 minutes in September 1967, but two months later Jennings and ABC both agreed he should get back out into the field.
Jennings described that early anchoring experience as "I sounded like a young Bill Buckley and I looked like a teenager." If he hadn't quit the desk to become a national correspondent, he says, "there's no question they would have fired me."
The following year, he established the first U.S. television bureau in the Arab world, in Beirut, Lebanon, where he served as chief for seven years.
His coverage of the 1972 Munich Olympics, when terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage, was part of a milestone in ABC News history. In 1975, he worked briefly as a morning anchor for what was then AM America, then headed back overseas to become the London-based chief foreign correspondent.
His tenure on World News Tonight began in 1978, when he co-anchored from London with Frank Reynolds (based in Washington) and Max Robinson (based in Chicago).
He was named the program's sole anchor and senior editor in August 1983 after subbing in Washington for Reynolds, who was suffering from cancer and a related illness, and had been forced to leave the broadcast the previous April.
Reynolds died July 20, 1983, prompting the move of Jennings, and the broadcast's headquarters, to New York and the dropping of the multiple-anchor format.
Jennings appointment was treated at the time as the start of a new era of single-anchored, New York-based nightly newscasts since it followed by only two week's NBC's announcement that it, too would drop the dual-anchor format of Tom Brokaw in New York and Roger Mudd in D.C. in favor of Brokaw solo. Rather had taken over from Walter Cronkite in New York 1981.
Over the next two decades, Jennings would cover nearly every major news story and produce special reports on issues ranging from education and health care to tobacco.
Jennings was a former smoker, though he had given up the habit 20 years ago with a little back-sliding around the pressure-packed days of 9/11.
Smoking was one of the issues Jennings had focused on in his reporting career, including as recently as last September, when he did an hour prime time special on the "betrayal and neglect" of the tobacco companies and some public health agencies who didn't fight for anti-tobacco legislation when they had the chance.
Earlier this year, Jennings had been notably absent from coverage of two major news stories--the Asian tsunami and the death of Pope John Paul II. He was last on the air April 5, when he revealed his lung cancer diagnosis to World News Tonight viewers, having missed several broadcasts and a speaking engagement the previous week .
If 1983 was the beginning of the modern anchor era, Jennings' death closes a chapter on the Big Three network news anchors.
NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw retired last December and CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather stepped down after an ill-fated 60 Minutes report on President Bush's Air National Guard service.
NBC's anchor-in-training, Brian Williams, took over smoothly for Brokaw and CBS' venerable Bob Schieffer is temporarily manning CBS' desk. Jennings' successor, however, is less clear.
In his absence, several ABC News staffers have hosted World News Tonight, most frequently Gibson and Elizabeth Vargas. But ABC never designated a successor for Jennings.
When CBS asked Schieffer to take over Evening News, he recalls Jennings was the first person to call and offer congratulations. "Peter Jennings was a great friend and a great competitor," Schieffer says. "What I liked most about him as a professional was his love of the news. He was never quite satisfied with what he knew. He always wanted to know more. And, his curiosity made all of us better."
Jennings was the "single best anchor ever," says CNN NewsNight anchor Aaron Brown, a former ABC News anchor. "He was as a reporter very tough and incredibly fair. As a boss, he was incredibly tough and mostly fair," Brown said. "I loved him a lot and will miss him forever."
Jennings was "simply one of the greats" and "the embodiment of the modern anchor," said Williams.
"Peter had a gift for bringing the world into American homes each night with grace, grit, style and wit. We were all the beneficiaries of his insatiable need to explore and explain our globe," Williams said. "We have all been robbed by his passing. Our profession will not be the same. We mourn for his family."
Brokaw reflected on his 40-year relationship with Jennings, whom Brokaw considered a friend as well as a competitor.
"As a competitor, he set the bar high and expected everyone around him to measure up. He made us all better," Brokaw said. "As a friend, he brought his passions and opinions to the relationship so it was never dull. I feel as if I've lost a member of my family."
Rather called Jennings "a fierce competitor, but a principled one." "With Peter on the story, you knew you weren't going to sleep very much because you had to have your eye on him all the time," Rather said. "But you also knew how ethical he was and what a passion he had for news." --John Eggerton contributed to this story.