The Untold Truth Of Tom Brokaw

The serious, sedate, and stately world of TV news was for years dominated by the serious, sedate, and stately Tom Brokaw. From 1982 to 2004, he informed millions of Americans of the important happenings around the country and around the world, five nights a week, as the host of the NBC Nightly News. Also the managing editor of the popular news program, Brokaw was an old-school newsman and a journalist, and he made numerous news specials and documentaries, appeared on newsmagazine shows, and wrote several books on American history. 

Brokaw has been a consistent presence on NBC, as well as its cable news outlets, for more than half a century, and one could argue that he's the definitive anchor — a strong, precise, and clear bearer and interpreter of news as it happens. (And it's worth mentioning that he's got ideal news anchor hair.) He ranks up there with broadcasting greats like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Larry King, and he's lived a compelling and singular life. Here's the untold truth of Tom Brokaw.

Tom Brokaw, game show winner

Tom Brokaw is responsible for thousands of hours of television, and it's not just news. One of Brokaw's very first television appearances was far from the world of hard-hitting video journalism. In 1957, a 17-year-old Brokaw was a contestant on the CBS game show Two for the Money. Duos would be given a category and would list as many qualifying answers as possible in just 15 seconds. Brokaw's partner was Joe Foss, a World War II military hero and governor of the future anchor's home state of South Dakota. The politician picked Brokaw because he was the head of the state's Boys State youth organization. "We could have bankrupted the show, because they were all political questions. And I was a political junkie, and I knew everything," Brokaw told New York Magazine in 1997. In that half-hour in the televised spotlight, Brokaw and Foss won $600.

However, like many quiz shows in the 1950s, Two for the Money was possibly rigged. "It was fixed to the hilt," Brokaw said on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman (via The Washington Post), adding that right before the live game show hit the air, a man gave him and Foss all the answers in advance.

Medical issues kept Tom Brokaw out of the military

Born in 1940, Tom Brokaw found himself at prime soldier age — his twenties — in the 1960s, right when the United States maintained a significant military presence in Southeastern Asia because of the Vietnam War. Unlike many young American men, Brokaw's name didn't come up in the draft. He tried to enlist in the military, in the early days of the war.

Shortly after graduating from the University of South Dakota, Brokaw decided to join the U.S. Navy, specifically its officer training program. He was accepted and was preparing to ship out, but then he failed the physical. "I had flat feet," he told the U.S. Naval Institute's Naval History Blog. Flat feet precluded military enlistment, as the condition is thought to impede marching and lead to pain and spinal issues.

Setting aside his dream of being an officer, Brokaw approached the draft board instead and volunteered, willing to accept a rank-and-file position. "The same regulation applied," he said, referring to his flat feet. "I missed my opportunity. I think it would have been good for me, frankly."

Tom Brokaw did everything on NBC News

Tom Brokaw wasn't just the anchor of the NBC Nightly News: He was the anchor of the entire NBC News operation. Over a career with the network that would last more than five decades, Brokaw worked in most every capacity available to a television journalist. According to The Wrap, Brokaw started out as a reporter at NBC News' Los Angeles Bureau in the 1960s before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1973 to serve as the organization's chief White House correspondent. In 1976, he received yet another high-profile, visibility-increasing promotion when NBC bumped him up to co-host of Today. He didn't last long in that position — in 1982, NBC paired Brokaw with veteran newsman Roger Mudd, and together, they co-anchored the NBC Nightly News. A year later, Mudd stepped away, leaving Brokaw the sole anchor of the network's primary news program.

Brokaw walked away from the NBC Nightly News in 2004 but returned in a major way just four years later. After Tim Russert, moderator of the Sunday-morning public affairs show Meet the Press, died suddenly in 2008, Brokaw became that program's interim host, anchoring the show through the end of the year. According to Today, Brokaw is the only person to ever host all three of NBC News's flagship broadcasts: Today, the NBC Nightly News, and Meet the Press.

Tom Brokaw couldn't make it in prime-time TV

As the longtime anchor of the NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw was a face of NBC, appearing for a solid 30 minutes each night, five times a week. Brokaw was NBC's early evening guy, and he was so strongly linked to that slot that he had difficulty establishing himself in prime time.

In August 1993, NBC premiered Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, a newsmagazine show airing at 9 p.m. on Wednesday nights. Alongside pre-taped news items and feature packages, Brokaw and Couric appeared in hosting segments, shot and broadcast live from NBC's studios in New York City, which Variety said lent an air of "urgency" to the show. The public's response to Now was decidedly tepid. It ranked #52 in the annual ratings, unable to defeat time slot competitors Home Improvement and Grace Under Fire and unable to differentiate itself from the many other newsmagazine shows on TV at the time, such as 60 Minutes, Day One, Turning Point, 20/20, and Primetime Live. After one season, NBC eventually killed the Brokaw branding and absorbed Now into its multi-night Dateline franchise.

Tom Brokaw has a hard time pronouncing the letter "L"

While he also served as managing editor of NBC Nightly News for two decades and was the leading editorial force behind numerous television documentaries, Tom Brokaw has primarily worked as a news anchor, or a newsreader, and that job is essentially talking into a camera. He did all that in spite of, or perhaps because of, an extremely unique style of speaking. In addition to a moderately prominent midwestern-American accent (he was born and raised in South Dakota), he had difficulty fully pronouncing words with an "L" sound — which formed the basis of impressions of Brokaw, notably the one from Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live.

"In our family we had chronic hearing loss and I really think that it came out of that, that I didn't hear it the right way at the right time," Brokaw told NPR's Fresh Air. "I also grew up in working class neighborhoods where we didn't have speech therapists even though I was known as a kid who was talking all the time." Brokaw says he didn't really notice he dropped his L's until after he left South Dakota and that it became an issue in his profession. "I've worked on it over the years but when I get tired is when it shows up most of all."

Tom Brokaw could have been a senator

Perhaps spurred by the popularity of '60s California governor turned '80s president Ronald Reagan, a former actor and TV show host, several small-screen stars successfully ran for office in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sonny Bono, of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, was elected mayor of Palm Springs in 1988, and Fred Grandy, best known for playing Gopher on The Love Boat, served as a congressman representing Iowa from 1987 to 1994.

TV stars can make for compelling candidates because they boast name recognition and are generally well-liked, particularly news anchors. CBS newsman Walter Cronkite was regarded as the "most trusted man in America," for example, and NBC News' Tom Brokaw earned a similar reputation, winning the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media in 1992. It's for those reasons and more that Brokaw was briefly considered to run for elected office that same year. According to a 1992 report in TV Guide (via the Deseret News), Brokaw entertained the idea of running for a U.S. Senate seat in Montana, scheduled to be contested in 1994, or one from South Dakota, set to be determined in the elections of 1996. (Brokaw spent a month of each year in Montana in the early '90s, and he's a native of South Dakota.) The anchor ultimately decided to stick with news, renewing his contract with NBC.

Tom Brokaw saved the life of another news anchor

Before Tom Brokaw was the co-anchor of the NBC Nightly News, the evening broadcast was hosted by John Chancellor. When Chancellor decided to shift into a role as an editorial commentator in 1982, NBC replaced him with the duo of Roger Mudd and Tom Brokaw. Chancellor remained an NBC News contributor until his retirement in 1993, and he died in 1996. That death may have come a lot sooner if not for the man who took his job.

In a November 1979 feature about techniques to help save the lives of people choking on food, The Wall Street Journal (via The Washington Post) mentioned that a few days earlier, Chancellor was present at an NBC luncheon when a piece of food became stuck in his throat, preventing him from breathing. "His colleague Tom Brokaw promptly administered a type of bear hug to dislodge the piece of cheese causing the problem."

Why Tom Brokaw loves the Greatest Generation

Tom Brokaw is famous for headlining the NBC Nightly News for 20 years, but he's also as well-known for his three books about Americans born in the early 20th century who endured the Great Depression, fought Nazis in World War II, and shaped American culture and industry in the postwar years. The title of the first of those books, 1998's The Greatest Generation, became the common name by which that age group is known. According to Investopedia, Brokaw is believed to have coined the phrase.

Brokaw was first inspired to write The Greatest Generation more than a decade earlier, in 1984, when he traveled to Normandy to make an NBC News special about the 40th anniversary of D-Day, a turning point in World War II that led to victory for the Allies. "As I walked the beaches with the American veterans who had returned for this anniversary," Brokaw wrote in the book, "I was deeply moved and profoundly grateful for all they had done." In 1994, he returned for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, by which point he "had come to understand what this generation of Americans meant to history."

Tom Brokaw beat cancer in his seventies

Tom Brokaw has always considered himself a lucky person – he titled his 2015 memoir A Lucky Life Interrupted, after all — but at the age of 73, he faced a daunting health crisis that many would consider the opposite of fortunate. According to an interview with NPR's Fresh Air, in 2013, a doctor diagnosed Brokaw with a form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma. It led to excruciating symptoms for the journalist, including the worst pain of his life and bone fractures. 

"It was paralyzing in a way," Brokaw said. "There were times when I simply couldn't get out of bed." Brokaw sought treatment, and as of 2015, the cancer was in a state of remission. To keep it that way, Brokaw remains on a strict therapy regimen that involves a low dose of chemotherapy in pill form, which he'll take every day for the remainder of his life.

Tom Brokaw made some controversial remarks about immigration

Americans expect and hope that journalists of any media type will collect, report, and deliver the news as objectively and with as little bias as possible. Tom Brokaw usually adhered to this notion, telling stories but withholding judgment. The fact that he publicly weighed in at all on immigration in 2019 was thus quite startling, and the content of his words proved even more scandalous.

During a roundtable discussion on NBC's Meet the Press about a proposed wall on the United States' border with Mexico, Brokaw brought up the delicate issues of immigration and cultural assimilation. After mentioning that some Republicans feared an influx of Latin Americans moving to the U.S. and registering as Democrats, he also spoke hypothetically of older white Americans who don't want interracial marriage and "brown grandbabies." "I also happen to believe that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation," Brokaw said. "You know, they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English."

Opponents quickly criticized and educated Brokaw. Rep. Joaquin Castro tweeted at Brokaw that into the 1950s in Texas, "Spanish was literally beaten out of children. At many schools if you spoke Spanish you were hit by a teacher." Political group Latino Victory tweeted that Brokaw's comments "give credence to white supremacist ideology and are not rooted in reality." Brokaw swiftly apologized, saying he was "truly sorry" that his "comments were offensive to many."

Tom Brokaw was accused of improper conduct

In 2017 and 2018, the Me Too movement rocked America. Countless individuals came forward to detail the demeaning and hostile treatment, often of a sexual nature, that they'd endured from men in positions of power, particularly in the workforce. The Me Too shift directly led to the end of the careers of Hollywood players like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K., and it also shook up the TV news world, with Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose left unemployed.

Tom Brokaw was also accused of inappropriate conduct by multiple women. In May 2018, journalist Mary Reinholz told The Villager that in 1968, Brokaw helped her with a story, and she met up with him to say thanks. "We talked and then, abruptly, he was embracing me and giving me a French kiss," Reinholz wrote (via ABC News). "I pulled away, reminding him that he was married and a tryst was out of the question." Linda Vester, a former NBC News correspondent, told Variety in 2018 that in the 1990s, Brokaw twice attempted to force her into a kiss, groped her in a conference room, and tried to get into her hotel room on one occasion.

In an email to his NBC News co-workers (published by The Hollywood Reporter), Brokaw dismissed the allegations, claiming that he was virtually "ambushed and then perp walked" and that he was "angry, hurt and unmoored" over being held up as "an avatar of male misogyny."

Tom Brokaw is signing off

Tom Brokaw enjoyed one of the longest careers not just in television news but in television period. According to Deadline, he started his national TV career with NBC News in 1966, stationed in Los Angeles, and worked his way up to become anchor of the NBC Nightly News by 1982. Twenty years later, Brokaw preemptively retired from that position, one of the loftiest and most visible in television journalism, agreeing in 2002 to step down as anchor after the conclusion of the November 2004 presidential election, per The New York Times.

When that departure time arrived, Brokaw left the NBC Nightly News, but he only left that particular program. According to the Associated Press, Brokaw served as a kind of anchor emeritus, hosting documentaries and appearing on NBC News productions like Meet the Press and Morning Joe. After a decade and a half of that, the 80-year-old Brokaw retired from television — for real, and fully — in January 2021.