Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Takes a Licking, Keeps on Ticking

Timex watch pitchman and pioneer TV news broadcaster John Cameron Swayze was born on this day in 1906 in Wichita, Kansas.

"It takes a licking and keeps on ticking" is what the affable announcer was remembered for, but early TV viewers were more accustomed to hearing him say, "Ladies and gentlemen, and a good evening to you" as host the first nightly news program, Camel News Caravan on NBC (1948-56). Swayze read the news during a 15-minute broadcast, sponsored by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, in what was little more than a TV picture of a radio news program. Lacking the technology to present film or taped segments, Swayze would simply narrate from notes on paper, with a lit cigarette in an ashtray visible on his desk at the instruction of the sponsor.

In 1956, NBC shed the cigarette company sponsorship (at least in name) and hired Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, recently successful as commentators on televised coverage of the 1956 Democratic and Republican conventions, to replace Swayze.

Giving a tobacco company the "naming rights" to a network news program seems preposterous by today's standards, but in the early days of television, the "news" was mainly concerned with highly visible affairs of state (TV had not yet learned how to rake muck, or wallow in it), and health concerns about cigarettes had not yet entered pop consciousness. The relationship between TV news and big tobacco has remained respectful, however, notably forcing 60 Minutes host Mike Wallace to kill, at least temporarily, the broadcast of an interview with former tobacco research exec Jeffrey Wigand about industry knowledge of the addictive properties of nicotine in 1994.

After being replaced on NBC, Swayze moved to ABC to anchor its evening news broadcast for a year in 1957 before becoming the on-air spokesman for Timex for 20 years. Swayze died on August 15, 1995 in Sarasota, Florida.

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