FLASH President Dead: The first breaking news Teletype on JFK assassination
When President Kennedy died, much of our nation first heard the report from Walter Cronkite.
But who told Cronkite?
Dr. Larry Lorenz was in Chicago covering the broadcast news desk for United Press International on November 22, 1963, “At the time, certainly I didn’t think we were a part of history.”
Lorenz began his shift at 8 a.m. preparing routine Teletype news scripts for UPI’s 3,500 radio and TV clients in the United States, Canada and Mexico, “There wasn’t much going on in the world. And I was to sit on the main news desk. Handed off the newscast. The Teletype operator would type words onto what was called punch tape. Then that clacked out on Teletypes all over the country.”
Lorenz happened upon the UPI job about a month after leaving the Army, “Our main competitor was the Associated Press. This was a hardwire operation run through a telephone company. We paid for those wires.”
At 12:34 Lorenzo was on his way to lunch when a major breaking news bulletin came across the Teletype from Dallas, “All of a sudden we got this ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.”
UPI’s White House reporter Merriman Smith was travelling about five cars behind the President when shots rang out.
Merriman was riding with AP reporter Jack Bell and one other journalist.
Lorenz says Merriman instinctively commandeered the lone radio phone, “And Smith isn’t giving it up. Bell starts to beat Smith on his back trying to get at the phone. Smith dials the Dallas Bureau and says something to the effect that shots have been fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade.”
The Bulletin read: “Three shots fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.”
Suddenly bureaus across the nation started to jam-up the Teletype line.
”GET OFF GET OFF GET OFF,” first had to be typed in.
“Then all of a sudden here’s our flash,” says Lorenz. “Kennedy seriously wounded.”
Lorenz saved all the UPI Teletype copy from that day, “I simply took it.”
Once at Parkland Hospital, Merriman was able to feed out critical and timely information by tracking down a land-line phone, “We had a long lead on that story. Jack Bell isn’t able to get that story ten minutes or more after it’s been running on the UPI wire.”
“Walter Cronkite had just interrupted As the World Turns. How ironic that was,” says Lorenz. “And he was reading the UPI bulletins that we were sending.”
The Secret Serviceman seen jumping on the back of Kennedy’s car named Clint Hill was UPI’s first source at the hospital saying the President had died, “He was trying to get a stretcher. Merriman Smith runs past him and said, how is he? Clint Hill says, He’s dead.”
UPI held off sending that information, “The Secret Serviceman was in no position to decide whether he was alive or dead. I think it’s a lesson in ethical journalism. Get it first. But first, get it right.”
Once the White House confirmed the worst, Lorenz instructed the Teletype operator how to word the flash, “Type Kennedy dead. And she collapsed. Face in her hands, bent over the Teletype. But the other Teletype operator named Jimmy Darr came up behind, lifted her out of the chair, put her down on the floor gently. He leaned over her chair and typed, Flash, Kennedy Dead.”
Lorenz kept typing, “We followed that with the bulletin, President Kennedy is dead.”
Lorenz stayed on the news desk until his shift ended at 4:30, sending Teletype updates until Lee Harvey Oswald was in custody, “It was really astounding the effect those words had on people around the country. The incredible report of these first news flashes really furnished a page of history.”
Lorenz went on to earn his doctorate and set his sights on a university career.
He’s now retired from Loyola University as a Professor of Mass Communication. “One of the things that strikes me from all these years later is how professional a job we did.”
Lorenz says once his shift at UPI finished on that November afternoon in 1963, he walked to the Chicago Press Club, got a beer and then started to cry.
Overcome from the weight of that day.
For more on Dr. Larry Lorenz click below-