In American media news this week, anchors sank. Brian Williams’ six-month suspension from NBC just might sink this anchorman’s career, while Jon Stewart’s retirement from anchoring The Daily Show for over 15 years sank the hearts of his many fans. But why do we call newspeople anchors?
Anchor has long been sunk in the waters of English. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests the word all the way back to the 9th century, an early borrowing from the Latin ancora, meaning “anchor.” (Anchor‘s h was added in an erroneous spelling of Latin’s ancora as anchora.)Etymologists such as Ernest Weekley have claimed that the word represents the only Latin nautical word adopted by the Germanic languages. The Latin ancora turns out to be itself borrowed from the Greek ἄγκυρα (ankyra), meaning “anchor” but originally a kind of “bent hook.”
Deeper yet is the Greek root ἄγκος, “bend,” whose sea floor, so to speak, is the Proto-Indo-European *ank-, also “bend.” This *ank- was bent into English’s ankle, angle, and even England, land of the Angles, who were originally the people of Angul. Apparently, the Angles’ homeland, now Schleswig, by the border of Denmark and Germany, may have looked hook-like to these ancient Teutons. Hence, their angular name–which ultimately gave rise to the name of the English language.
The word anchor is old, and so is its metaphorical sense of something providing a “feeling of stability or security” (OED). The OED dates such usage back to 1382. A ship’s anchor-man is old, too, attested as early as 1200, but its figurative usages aren’t observed until the early 1900s.
In athletic circles, this anchor-man was in 1909, according to the OED, the “end member of a tug-of-war team, who secures the rope by looping it round his body.” In 1934, the OED records a usage referring to “the person who runs the last section of a relay race.” But it’s in the late 1940s and early 1950s that anchor was dropped into the American broadcast news environment.
According to Ben Zimmer, the term was applied in 1949 to political commentator, John Cameron Swayze, on the news panel show Who Said That?:
An article in the Washington Post on April 3, 1949, explained that Swayze was “anchor man in an otherwise changing team of experts.”
Swayze, then, as a consistent host of the program, served as a metaphorical anchor to this changing panel of experts.
But the term appears to have taken on its current seat in its application to CBS News’ Walter Cronkite during the 1952 presidential conventions, where Cronkite functioned as a special kind of anchor in coordinating other reporters in the broadcast. CBS News producer Sig Mickelson or convention producer Paul Levitan may get the credit for this particular christening. Read more from Zimmer in his 2009 piece for Slate.
The anchor comes home
When we watch(ed) Brian Williams or Jon Stewart, the original metaphor of the news anchor may be invisible to us on a conscious level, but I think it’s definitely registered on an emotional one. Williams’ ordeal and Stewart’s departure have so captured our attention and concern precisely because their nightly presences have indeed anchored our relationship to the news and media for so many of us.