NEW YORK -- Peter Jennings, the elegant Canadian news anchor who broke the news to Americans every night for five decades, died Sunday. He was 67 years old.
Jennings, who announced in April that he had lung cancer, died at his home in New York, ABC News president David Westin said late Sunday.
“Peter was in many ways our colleague, our friend and our leader. None of us will be the same without him," Westin said.
Along with Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, Jennings was part of the circus that dominated television news for more than two decades with the birth of cable news and the Internet. His fluid delivery and years of experience in international reporting have made him particularly popular with city dwellers.
"Peter was born a host," Brokaw said Monday on NBC's Today show. He said he met Jennings in 1966 while covering Ronald Reagan's campaign for governor of California, and "we had an instant friendship."
“Peter, of the three of us, was our prince. He seemed so ageless. He had so much enthusiasm and talent," Brokaw said.
Instead, during his appearance on ABC's Good Morning America tribute to Jennings, he noted that beneath Jennings' polished exterior was a fierce competitor.
"When Peter was in the primary, I didn't sleep," Eher said.
Jennings dominated the ratings from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s when Brokaw overtook him. He remained Canadian until 2003, when he became a US citizen, saying he had nothing to do with his politics, he was doing it for his family.
"He was a warm, caring and surprisingly sentimental man," said Ted Koppel, a longtime friend and presenter.
Jennings deeply regrets not finishing school and wants this class to be aired, Koppel said. He compensated by becoming a world scholar and studying cultures and their people for the rest of his life.
"No one could improvise like Peter," said Barbara Walters. “Sometimes it drove me crazy because I knew so many details.
"He died too young."
Jennings was the face of ABC News whenever a big story broke. Recording over 60 hours on air during the week of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it provided a reassuring sense of continuity at a turbulent time.
"A lot of people think our job is to reassure the public every night that their homes, their communities, and their nation are safe," said author Jeff Alan. "I don't agree with that at all. I'm generally okay with leaving people, sorry it's a cliché, a draft of a story. Some days it's soothing, other days it's downright destructive.”
Jennings' announcement four months ago that the longtime smoker would be starting treatment for lung cancer came as a shock.
"I will continue to broadcast," he said in a hoarse voice in a recorded message that evening. "On a good day, my voice won't always be like this."
But although Jennings occasionally came into the office between chemotherapy treatments, she never appeared on the air again.
“He knew it was a tough fight. But he met it with realism, courage and a strong hope that he would be one of the lucky ones," Westin said. "In the end it wasn't."
Broadcasting was the Jennings family business. His father, Charles Jennings, was the first to host a national evening news program in Canada and later became chief of news for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. A photograph of his father hung prominently in Jennings' office at ABC Essay.
Charles Jennings' son had a Saturday morning radio show in Ottawa at the age of 9. Jennings never finished high school or college and began his career as a reporter for a radio station in Brockville, Ontario. He quickly got a job as a presenter on Canadian television.
The ABC news president, who was sent south to cover the 1964 Democratic Convention, noted the dashing correspondent. Jennings was offered a reporter job and left Canada for New York.
As the No. 3 news channel, ABC saw its only chance in catering to young viewers. Jennings was selected to host the evening news and made his debut on February 1, 1965. He was 26 years old.
"It was kind of ridiculous when you think about it," said Jenningst author Barbara Matusow. "A 26-year-old trying to keep up with Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. He just wasn't qualified.”
Critics panned it as a pretty face unfit for promotion. The use of Canadian pronunciations for some words and the one-time misidentification of the Marine Corps anthem as "Anchors Aweigh" did not contribute to its reputation. The experience ended three years later.
He later described the humbling experience as an opportunity "because I was forced to find out who I am and what I really wanted to be."
Jennings was assigned a foreign correspondent and prospered. He set up an ABC news bureau in Beirut and became an expert on the Middle East. He won a 1974 Peabody Award for a portrait of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Against the backdrop of the Munich 1972 Olympics, Jennings was perfectly placed to cover the hostage-taking of Israeli athletes by an Arab terrorist group. He and a team holed up in the athletes' quarters to get a closer look at the drama.
Jennings returned to the nightly news a decade after his blunt departure. In 1978, ABC renamed its show WorldNews Tonight and established a crew of three: Frank Reynolds of Washington, Max Robinson of Chicago, and Jennings, ABC's foreign correspondent at the time, of London.
After Reynolds' death from cancer, ABC dropped the multi-anchor format and Jennings became the sole anchor on September 5, 1983. Brokaw became a solo anchor on NBC a few days later. Instead, he accepted the position of anchor at CBS in 1981.
Beginning in 1986, Jennings began a decade at the top of the ratings. His international experience helped him explain stories like the collapse of European communism, the first Gulf War and the terrorist attack on Lockerbie, Scotland. He prided himself on the fact that, as the name suggests, World News Tonight had a more mundane perspective than its rivals. Fans responded to his intelligent, controlled style.
"If it's clearly an emotional experience for the audience, the presenter shouldn't add their emotional layers," Jennings said in an interview with the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
Two-thirds of local stations responding to a 1993 Broadcasting & Cable Magazine poll said Jennings was the network's best host. The Washington Journalism Review named him Anchor of the Year three years in a row.
As Americans continued to look inward in the mid-1990s, NBC's Tom Brokaw overtook Jennings in the ratings. However, ABC was still close to second place. When Brokaw resigned in December 2004, followed by Rather, ABC launched an advertising campaign that highlighted Jennings' experience, an ironic turn of events considering how his career at ABCNews began.
But ABC never knew if Jennings could develop his role as a senior statesman; His cancer diagnosis came just a month after Rather resigned from his chair.
Jennings was proud of his Canadian citizenship, although this has occasionally been a sore point for some critics. When Jennings spoke at the opening of a museum celebrating the US Constitution in 2003, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told him, "Not bad for a Canadian."
Jennings whispered her secret: She had just passed an exam that gave her dual citizenship in the United States.
"My decision to do this has nothing to do with politics," Jennings told the Associated Press at the time. "It has nothing to do with my job. It has everything to do with my family."
Strangely curious, Jennings urged ABC News to use the turn of the century for a comprehensive historical study. He co-wrote a book, The Century, with Todd Brewster and ran a special 25-hour marathon that ended on January 1, 2000. Jennings and Brewster also traveled back roads to write In Search of America.
Jennings also led a documentary team at ABC News, which struck a chord in 2000 with the critically acclaimed spiritual special The Search for Jesus.
"I've never gone a day in my adult life without studying," Jennings told the Saturday Evening Post. "And if there's one rebirth quality for me, that's it."
Like Rather and Brokaw, Jennings was not entirely comfortable in a studio. She traveled the world covering stories, and when she didn't travel to Asia to cover the aftermath of the tsunami less than four months before her cancer diagnosis, it was noticed.
He is survived by his wife, Kayce Freed, and their two children, Elizabeth, 25, and Christopher, 23.