Peter Jennings, Canadian-born broadcaster who delivered the news to Americans each night, died Sunday. He was 67.
Jennings, who revealed in April that he had lung cancer, died at his New York home, ABC News President David Westin announced late Sunday.
“Peter has been our colleague, our friend, and our leader in so many ways. None of us will be the same without him,” Westin said.
With Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, Jennings was part of a triumvirate that dominated network news for more than two decades. His smooth delivery and years of international reporting experience made him popular among urban viewers.
“Peter was born to be an anchor,” Brokaw said Monday on NBC’s “Today.” He said he met Jennings in 1966 covering Ronald Reagan’s campaign for California governor and “we had an instant friendship.”
“Peter, of the three of us, was our prince. He seemed so timeless. He had such elan and style,” Brokaw said.
Rather, appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America” tribute to Jennings, noted that beneath Jennings’ polished exterior was a fierce competitor.
“If Peter was in the area code, I didn’t sleep,” Rather said.
Jennings won the ratings battle from the late 1980s to the mid-’90s, when Brokaw surpassed him. He remained a Canadian until 2003, when he became a U.S. citizen, saying it had nothing to do with his politics; he did it for his family.
“He was a warm and loving and surprisingly sentimental man,” said Ted Koppel, a longtime friend and co-worker.
Jennings always regretted not finishing school, and he would have wanted that lesson passed along, Koppel said. He compensated by becoming a student of the world, studying cultures and their people for the rest of his life.
“No one could ad lib like Peter,” said Barbara Walters. “Sometimes he drove me crazy because he knew so many details.
“He just died much too young.”
Jennings was the face of ABC News whenever a major story broke. He put in more than 60 hours on the air during the week of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“There are a lot of people who think our job is to reassure the public every night that their home, their community and their nation is safe,” he told author Jeff Alan. “I don’t subscribe to that at all. Some days it’s reassuring, some days it’s absolutely destructive.”
Jennings’ announcement four months ago that the longtime smoker would begin treatment for lung cancer came as a shock to most.
“I will continue to do the broadcast,” he said, his voice husky, in a taped message that night. “On good days, my voice will not always be like this.”
Jennings occasionally came to the office between chemotherapy treatments, but he never again appeared on the air.
“He knew that it was an uphill struggle. But he faced it with realism, courage, and a firm hope that he would be one of the fortunate ones,” Westin said. “In the end, he was not.”
Broadcasting was the family business for Jennings. His father, Charles Jennings, was the first person to anchor a nightly national news show in Canada and later became head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s news division. A picture of his father was displayed in Jennings’ ABC’s newsroom office.
Charles Jennings’ son already had a Saturday morning radio show in Ottawa at age 9. He began his career as a news reporter at a radio station in Brockton, Ontario. He quickly earned an anchor job at CTV.
Sent south to cover the Democratic national convention in 1964, the correspondent was noticed by ABC’s news president. Jennings was offered a reporting job and left Canada for New York.
As the third-place news network, ABC gambled that its only chance was to go after young viewers. Jennings was picked to anchor the evening news and debuted on Feb. 1, 1965. He was 26 at the time.
“It was a little ridiculous when you think about it,” Jennings told author Barbara Matusow. “A twenty-six-year-old trying to compete with Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. I was simply unqualified.”
Critics ripped him as a pretty face unfit for the promotion. The experiment ended with his replacement as anchor three years later.
He later described the humbling experience as an opportunity, “because I was obliged to figure out who I was and what I really wanted to be.”
Assigned as a foreign correspondent, Jennings thrived. He established an ABC News bureau in Beirut, and became an expert on the Middle East.
On the scene at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Jennings was well placed to cover the hostage-taking of Israeli athletes by an Arab terrorist group. He and a crew hid in the athletes’ quarters for a close view of the drama.
Jennings returned to the anchor chair a decade after his unceremonious departure. In 1978, ABC renamed its broadcast “World News Tonight,” and began a three-person anchor team: Frank Reynolds based in Washington, Max Robinson from Chicago and Jennings, by then ABC’s chief foreign correspondent, from London.
Following Reynolds’ death from cancer, ABC abandoned the three-anchor format and Jennings became sole anchor on Sept. 5, 1983. Brokaw became solo anchor at NBC just days later. Rather had taken the CBS job in 1981.
Starting in 1986, Jennings began a decade on top of the ratings. His international experience helped him to explain stories like the collapse of European communism, the first Gulf War and the terrorist bombing of an airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland. He enjoyed that “World News Tonight,” as its name suggested, took a more worldly view than its rivals.
“When it’s clearly an emotional experience for the audience, the anchor should not add his or her emotional layers,” Jennings said in an interview with the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
With Americans looking more inward in the mid to late-1990s, NBC’s Tom Brokaw surpassed Jennings in the ratings. ABC was still a close No. 2, however.
Jennings was proud of his Canadian citizenship, although in 2003 he passed a test earning him dual citizenship in the United States.
“My decision to do this has nothing to do with politics,” Jennings told The Associated Press at the time. “It has nothing to do with my profession. It has everything to do with my family.”
He is survived by his wife, Kayce Freed, and his two children, Elizabeth, 25, and Christopher, 23.