A Fuller History Of NBC Television News…Some New Surprises!
After further research, I now realize that last week’s story on this subject only scratched the surface or a much deeper history. Today, we set the record straight.
The most widely celebrated dates in NBC news history are February 16, 1948 and February 16, 1949. In ’48 “The Camel Newsreel Theater” debuted as a 10 minute weekday newsreel from Fox Movietone News which was narrated off camera by John Cameron Swayze.
The next year, Swayze moved in front of the camera and that began “The Camel News Caravan” as a live news show. CBS had put Douglas Edwards on camera May 3, 1948.
BUT…this was not the start of news at NBC. In fact, almost immediately after their first regular TV service began April 30, 1939, news had begun to be reported on W2XBS (WNBT).
Newscaster Lowell Thomas had occasionally simulcast his NBC Radio show locally from Studio 3H as early as December 1939 and from February till July of 1940, he regularly simulcast his “Sunoco News” show to New York viewers.
There was also the weekly “Esso Television Reporter” from March until May of 1940 hosted by William Spargrove, who narrated off camera. The Esso program used live organ music and on camera was a mix of newswire photos, maps and graphic miniature depictions of news event locations.
In the photo below, we see one of those Esso mini sets in use. This scene depicts the first use of aircraft to attack warships. Remember, although WW II had not come to our shores yet, Europe was fully engulfed in 1940. As we will see, the war severely curtailed television in every way, but there is more to the pre war story below.
From July of 1941 till May of 1942, Sam Cuff hosted a weekly news commentary called “Face The War”, but the show ended as RCA and NBC cut television operations down to next to nothing five months after Pearl Harbor.
On February 23, 1944, things started to stir a bit as “The War As It Happens” came to television, and NBC News has been on the air more-or-less continuously since then.
“The War As It Happens” began as a local program, but NBC records indicate that in April of 1944, it was fed to Schenectady and Philadelphia on the fledgling NBC Television Network and became the first news cast regularly seen in multiple cities.
At the time, even the great NBC Radio news department was tiny compared to the wire services and newspapers and newsreels. Television was even less able to gather news because they didn’t even have local film crews. The first breakthrough came in 1944 when John Royal, the first head of television at NBC, acquired the rights to Army Signal Corps film.
Using this footage, “The War As It Happens” followed what was basically a newsreel format, using the film with Paul Alley narrating and Ray Forrest in the studio with commentary, maps and wire photos.
In August 1945, the war was over and the Sunday “The War As It Happens” newscast was renamed “The NBC Television Newsreel”.
In mid 1946, it gained a sponsor and became “The Esso Newsreel” and was rescheduled to two nights a week, Monday and Thursday.
On February 16, 1948 Esso bowed out and a new sponsor came to the show which became “The Camel Newsreel Theater”. The next year, it went live with Swayze on camera, but surprisingly there are reports of background music throughout the broadcast until the early 1950s. That was a remnant of the old newsreel shows. In 1956, Swayze was replaced by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. I think you know the rest of the story. Enjoy and share! -Bobby Ellerbee