Arnold Zenker’s 13 Days of Fame on the CBS Evening News

This week in 1967, Arnold Zenker replaced “The Most Trusted Man on Television” when familiar faces like Hugh Downs, Frank Blair and Walter Cronkite honored the picket lines in an announcers’ strike.

It was the first ever work stoppage organized by the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. It began on March 29, lasting for thirteen uncomfortable days. Soap operas and game shows shut down, some live programming was replaced with reruns. But with the emergence of network television news as a major information source for millions of Americans, the effects of the strike were most visible at 6:30pm.

Arnold Zenker, Anchoring in 1967

When it became clear to CBS Evening News executive producer, Ernest Leiser, that Walter Cronkite was not coming to work, Leiser auditioned four staffers for the substitute role. He selected 28 year old Arnold Zenker, a junior network news executive who read radio news in college.

“I said I’d never done television,” Zenker told then CBS anchor Scott Pelley in 2017. “They said you’re going to do the ‘CBS Morning News,’ then they said stay around and do the ‘Midday News,'” With less than an hour of actual airtime, Arnold Zenker was awakened from an afternoon nap with the news that he would fill in on the network’s flagship newscast.

Zenker sat in front of the teleprompter throughout the strike, beginning each program with, “This is Arnold Zenker, substituting for Walter Cronkite.”

Cronkite wasn’t the only name journalist to support the strikers. Peter Jennings stayed away from his anchor role at ABC. Daryl Griffin and Bill Sheehan covered for him. David Brinkley was absent at NBC. His partner on what was then the highest rated network newscast, Chet Huntley remained on the air solo, claiming that AFTRA was not qualified to represent newscasters. In his memoir, Brinkley attributes that moment in time to the audience shift that signaled the end of NBC’s long time evening news dominance.

Zenker became a bit of a sensation, receiving over 30,000 fan letters during his brief stint in the anchor chair. But the mood inside the studio was anything but festive. In fact, Zenker told New York Times Op-Ed contributor, Bob Greene, “No one really said anything. Not even ‘nice show.’ I think they thought that, by their standards, I was a freak. I was there by pure accident. I’d just say, ‘Good night, fellas,’ and go home.”

His perception as a union buster followed Arnold Zenker when he returned to his administrative duties. He felt his presence made some people uneasy. Zenker remembered an encounter in the men’s room where a colleague said, “Arnold, you’ve got a great future behind you.” Soon after, he left the network, earning his television journalism stripes in Boston before becoming a communications consultant for corporate executives. He had a brief cameo on 60 Minutes in that role and joined Pelley for a conversation about his 13 days of fame on the 50th anniversary of the strike.

When an agreement was reached and Cronkite returned to the anchor chair, he tipped the hat to his substitute, opening the program with “Good evening. This is Walter Cronkite, sitting in for Arnold Zenker. It’ good to be back.”

Arnold Zenker may only be a footnote in television history. But he has earned a bit of immortality in the pantheon of the popular culture we talk about here at Rock and Roll Revisited. He was the topic of an answer on the game show Jeopardy, on December 3rd, 1984.

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit