Swayze, John Cameron

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Swayze, John Cameron

(b. 4 April 1906 in Wichita, Kansas; d. 15 August 1995 in Sarasota, Florida), radio and television newscaster who became a popular announcer, panel-show host, and commercial spokesman.

Swayze was the only child of Jesse Ernest Swayze, a traveling salesman with a degree in pharmacy, and Christine Cameron, a homemaker. Swayze graduated from Atchison High School in Kansas, where he excelled in drama and oratory. He attended the University of Kansas until 1929, when he left to attend drama school and to pursue an acting career in New York City. He met his wife, Beulah Mae, also a budding actress, at the school and married her in 1932, a union that lasted until his death; they had two children. Swayze used all three of his names professionally, in deference to his mother’s Scottish background. The onset of the Great Depression discouraged a theater career, and Swayze moved to Kansas City, Missouri. He joined the Kansas City Journal-Post in 1930 as the city hall reporter and editor. Ironically, his broadcasting career started at the newspaper when he aired news bulletins for KMBC radio from the Journal-Post newsroom. He became a full-time newscaster at the station in 1940.

In 1945 Swayze was NBC’s Hollywood-West Coast bureau chief. When NBC transferred him to New York City in 1947, he was a network radio newscaster. Later, he was a regular member on the television quiz show Who Said That?, hosted by Robert Trout. This turned out to be a popular program in which a panel of celebrities tried to identify the speakers of notable quotes from the preceding week. On Sundays, Swayze was master of ceremonies of Watch the World, a children’s educational program.

In the spring of 1948 Swayze provided off-camera narration of The Camel Newsreel Theatre, a ten-minute featurette aired each weeknight at 7:50 P.M. This was a joint effort between NBC and Fox-Movietone Newsreels. Fox-Movietone provided newsreel film of the day’s major events and NBC prepared a script, often written by Swayze himself, to accompany the images. Beginning in 1949, he opened the show, wearing his trademark carnation in his lapel, with “Ladies and gentlemen, a good evening to you” and by inviting the audience to join him in “hopscotching the world for headlines.” The carnation, and the fact that he never wore the same tie two nights in a row, reflected his keen understanding that television is a medium for performers. Given his background and love for drama and oratory, he understood the craft of performance and how to apply it to this new technology. When doing his news broadcast from behind his desk once on a hot summer day, he rose from his chair to walk over to a weather map only to realize that from the waist down he was in blue jeans. He promptly sat down and the camera panned to the map. He closed the show with a warm, down-home “Well, that’s the story folks! I’m John Cameron Swayze and I’m glad we could get together.” His opening and closing became sound-bite classics. The program replaced the network’s straight newsreel format and became the prototype for modern newscasts with live events and interviews from different cities. Swayze had a near-photographic memory. In an interview on 22 June 1979, Swayze proclaimed that, although he had a script on his desk in case of emergency, “I never ‘read the news’ in my whole life. I wrote my news and delivered my news.”

The 1948 presidential conventions in Philadelphia produced NBC’s first superstar television anchorman. Swayze gave gavel-to-gavel on-camera coverage for all who had television sets between Boston, Massachusetts, and Richmond, Virginia. The rest of the country saw filmed highlights the next day. As the NBC anchor, Swayze continued to appear on-camera when his nightly newscast was changed to The Camel News Caravan and expanded from ten to fifteen minutes in early 1949. He was the NBC Nightly News anchor until 26 October 1956, when he was succeeded by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Toward the end of 1956 he worked with WABC radio. Also, Swayze hosted the Armstrong Circle Theatre (1955–1957) and played himself in I, Mrs. Bibb on the Kraft Television Theatre on 19 October 1955.

For twenty-three years Swayze was featured in Timex watch commercials, in which watches were subjected to all sorts of abuse and always emerged intact. Swayze would proclaim that “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” In an interview on 22 June 1979, Swayze related the story of the now famous Timex ad. On the live Steve Allen Show, watches were strapped to three blades of an outboard-motor propeller and subjected to merciless whirring in a tankful of water. Two survived and one disappeared. Without missing a beat, Swayze told millions of viewers, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to tell you, that watch is on the bottom of the tank right now. We’ll show it to you next time.” The camera switched to Allen, who said, “You think there’ll be a next time, John?” Swayze told his interviewer, “What a line to hand me.” Bulova had created the watch torture-test but dropped the idea. Timex, with Swayze, took the concept to enduring success for more than two decades.

Although The Camel News Caravan was sponsored by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Swayze did not smoke because he had been told by his doctors that it was bad for his health. Each week Reynolds would deliver a carton of Camels to his house where they accumulated and on occasion were given to friends. Swayze was required to have a lighted Camel cigarette in an ashtray on his desk while he was on the air so that the smoke would swirl upward on camera. At the end of the show, a camera would focus in on the cigarette as a getaway shot. One evening, just as the cameraman was about to do his job, Swayze realized that a careless stagehand had placed a rival brand cigarette, a lighted king-size Pall Mall, in the ashtray. Swayze flipped the errant cigarette out of camera range before millions of viewers (and Reynolds Tobacco) saw it.

In 1957 Swayze appeared in the cast of the Westinghouse Studio One live television drama The Human Barrier, a one-hour tribute to the U.S. Air Force featuring a history of military flight. Also in 1957, Swayze received the Alfred I. DuPont—Columbia University award for excellence in broadcast journalism.

In later years Swayze attempted various marketing ventures including neckties with his signature, a board game called “SWAYZE,” and a paperback book entitled The Art of Living (1979). He died of natural causes at the age of ninety-nine and is buried in Greenwich, Connecticut.

John Cameron Swayze was a man who thought of himself as a serious newscaster. At his peak, he had an estimated 15 million nightly viewers. His son, John Cameron Swayze, Jr., said at the time of his father’s death that he “managed to project a certain innocence, a feeling of promise, a genuine friendliness… When he signed off with ’Glad we could get together,’ he really meant it, and I think people understood that he meant it.” Walter Cronkite said, “I’d like him to be remembered as a serious newsman. In later years he did the Timex commercials, so I’m afraid he’ll be remembered as the guy who took watches down in the submarine.”

Brief biographical material on Swayze was prepared by Dory DeAngelo and is located in Special Collections at the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Library. Tom Shales wrote an article for the Washington Post based on an interview with Swayze (22 June 1979) entitled “The Mighty Monarch of the Air; John Cameron Swayze—Newsman in Tune with Timex.” The Museum of Television and Radio in New York City has numerous references to television and radio programs involving Swayze as an announcer, reporter, host, and actor, including I, Mrs. Bibb for the Kraft Television Theatre, which aired on NBC on 19 October 1955. David Brinkley discussed Swayze in an interview with Brian Lamb aired over C-SPAN’s Booknotes (10 Dec. 1995). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 Aug. 1995). John Cameron Swayze, Jr., was generous in providing personal information about his father.

Richard A. Cook