Where there was history being made, Sander Vanocur was often there with the hard-hitting questions. The trailblazing journalist who covered politics for television and print for more than 40 years died of complications from dementia on Monday, September 16, 2019, while in hospice care in Santa Barbara, California, according to The New York Times. He was 91.
Vanocur was one of the four journalists on the panel of the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, watched by 70 million viewers in 1960. More than three decades later, he was one of the panelists for the debate between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992.
He also hosted two series on the HISTORY, Movies in Time and History’s Business. For Movies in Time, he once interviewed Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins about the 1995 film Nixon, comparing the movie’s depictions to the actual historical events. “It’s in the eye of the beholder,” Vanocur told the Los Angeles Times of its accuracy. “One part of me rebels against looseness with the facts. The other part says that people have a right to interpret history in their own way...I think he is staking out his views and putting them in the movie, which is his right. But is it accurate history? I don’t think so.”
He himself also appeared in films as a journalist, with appearances in 1971’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, 1980’s Raise the Titanic, 1993’s Dave, 1996’s Getting Away with Murder and 1994’s Without Warning. He also received the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism’s Carr Van Anda Award.
Born on January 8, 1928, in Cleveland, his name was originally spelled Sander Vinocur. But after his mother and his lawyer father divorced, she moved with her children to Peoria, Illinois, and changed the spelling of their last name to Vanocur because she was “mad at the old man,” as The New York Times says Vanocur told the St. Petersburg, Florida, paper, The Evening Independent.
Vanocur graduated from the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois, and Northwestern University, and also studied at the London School of Economics. He served in the army as well.
He started his career as a reporter for The Manchester Guardian and worked for the BBC and CBS News, before going to The New York Times in 1955. In 1957 he moved to NBC News where he held several roles as a White House correspondent, Today show D.C. correspondent, The Huntley-Brinkley Report contributing editor and First Tuesday host. In the early 1970s, he left NBC for PBS, followed by stints at The Washington Post from 1975 to 1977 and ABC News from 1977 to 1991.
Among his most notable interviews were talking to Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Ebenezer Baptist Church less than a year before he was assassinated and Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel, just before Kennedy was killed in 1968.
“I’m a strong advocate of the freedom of the press — as long as they have something to say,” he said in 2004 in a Stanford University speech.
Vanocur was also a consultant at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, professor of communications at Duke University, professional-in-residence at The Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia, and had his own communications consulting business, Old Owl Communications.
He was married to Edith Pick in 1956 and had two sons, Christoper and Nicholas. After Pick died in 1975, he married Virginia Backus Vancour, who survives him. He’s also survived by a step-daughter, Daphne Wood Hicks.