Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Finding a Television "First"

Trying to sort out when the first regular TV newscast began is a bit of a challenge. Most sources concede that the first Monday through Friday news programme was the “Camel Newsreel Theatre,” which debuted on February 16, 1948. That may not be true, though. Looking through the New York Times TV listings, it’s clear that Walter Compton was broadcasting on the DuMont Network for 15 minutes every weeknight starting at 6:45 p.m. from Washington, D.C. His programme debuted on June 16, 1947 and went off the air on Tuesday, May 18, 1948. Ah, but poor DuMont gets little respect. Compton had hosted “Double or Nothing” before becoming Mutual’s “Presidential announcer” (he introed the Fireside Chats on the network) and then a news reader. He was only 47 when he died on December 9, 1959.

The “Newsreel Theatre” was announced by John Cameron Swayze. You can’t really call him the show’s “anchor.” He was an off-camera voice, just like Ed Herlihy and other announcers on movie newsreels. All the audience saw was filmed stories and title cards. And the stories were like newsreel stories—either hard news or puff on things like new car models, dog shows and fashion displays (TV news today, it appears, has gone backward in some respects).

Here’s a neat little trade ad that NBC put out about the “Camel Newsreel Theatre” a few weeks after it debuted. The unidentified artist drew other trade ads for NBC around that time. And everyone is smoking.

R.J. Reynolds let the “Newsreel Theatre” last a year. It wanted a change in format, so Swayze was plunked in front of the camera and NBC took over production of the broadcast from Fox and its Movietone News. The broadcast was expanded from 10 to 15 minutes and on February 16, 1949, the “Camel News Caravan” debuted. News doesn’t travel by caravan, as best as I can tell, but R.J. Reynolds had used the word in shows it sponsored on radio, such as the “Camel Comedy Caravan.” So, “News Caravan” it was. The caravan was parked and the camel and Swayze wandered into the broadcasting desert on October 29, 1956 when NBC made a change and began broadcasting “The Huntley-Brinkley Report.” It was a move the network eventually didn’t regret.

Television was growing slowly by the time the “Camel Newsreel Theatre” signed on. But it was still a tiny industry. CBS wasn’t broadcasting any programming some days of the week. NBC could only broadcast live to stations on the coaxial cable or by relay station—about a half dozen. The rest were served by the NBC Kinescope Films department, meaning a camera was aimed at a TV set, filmed what was on the tube, then the film was shipped to the stations. Below is a map from Sponsor magazine showing the network as it was then, with no station in Chicago and none on the West Coast.

By the fall of 1948, a larger schedule was in place, as were more stations. And then came the explosion in sales of TV sets, thanks not to John Cameron Swayze but a fellow named Milton Berle.


  1. "Below is a map from Sponsor magazine showing the network as it was then, with no station in Chicago"

    Nor was Toledo, but nice to see we got in early as we could.

  2. Lima's NBC affiliate wasn't even a gleam in anybody's eye yet. Check out the Camel Caravan trade ad... THE CHILD IS SMOKING.