He was born into a Quaker family of farmers in Polecat Creek, North Carolina. He was raised in Washington State, but would leave his parents life behind him when he enrolled in Washington State University. At the University he majored in speech and upon graduation worked for several organizations for whom he developed student conferences. Because of his positions he traveled to Europe several times which allowed him to make contacts. Eventually, he was hired by CBS and at age 27 sent overseas as CBS' "Director of talks" to provide speakers and acts for the newly burgeoning radio medium.
He had a sense of idealism and believed in the underdog; possibly character he formed from his Quaker upbringing. He was tall, lean, but had a darker look to his appearance. He was very bright and as drama was unfolding in the European stage, Murrow saw an opportunity for radio to bring events right into America's homes. He communicated his ideas to his boss, Paul White, but much of them fell on deaf ears. Eventually, CBS came to realize that they had a good thing by having personal reports from their own reporters, who could offer as much an eyewitness view on the events unfolding as the others who appeared on the air. Murrow's reports and analysis along with those from the reporters he hired set the trend for broadcast journalism for many years to follow.
Murrow is not only known for his cogent point-of-view, but also for his clipped, slow but deliberate style of speaking. Gerald Nachman in his Raised on Radio says Murrow "picked up his basic speech patterns from his Quaker mother, who often spoke in inverted phrases like 'This I believe.'" Murrow never considered himself a writer and though not like Kaltenborn's extemporaneous speaking, often dictated his broadcasts to his secretary, who would transcribe them in preparation for his reports. This added to the seemingly casual form of broadcast that made Murrow's broadcasts notable. Listeners felt he was speaking directly to them and not just reading something.
Though he preferred radio, Murrow's reports provided us with strong visual images:
"Tonight, as on every other night, the rooftop watchers are peering out across the fantastic forest of London's chimney pots. The anti-aircraft gunners stand ready."
"I have been walking tonight - there is a full moon, and the dirty-gray buildings appear white. The stars, the empty windows, are hidden. It's a beautiful and lonesome city where men and women and children are trying to snatch a few hours sleep underground."
Murrow and his "boys," the CBS European broadcast team represented the conscience of the American people as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini grabbed more and more territory in their quest to dominant the world. Their reports helped this country understand a need to enter the war. Murrow was America abroad, and we could not believe our ears of the suffering and fear the European people were experiencing. For listeners, Murrow was the common man. We wanted to listen to him and believe.
And just as his influence swayed Americans to believe in a war they were reluctant to want, his reports on the Holocaust were equally spellbinding. When he visited one of the camps at Buchenwald, despite his attempt to tone down what he saw, he still presented a powerful picture of a darker side of our humanity.
After the war, Murrow, at first reluctantly moved into the television medium. Radio was his first love and he continued broadcasting in that medium. But he began to see the power of television, as he saw with radio, and set new standards for what the broadcast news media could accomplish. But though he and William Paley, head of CBS, were soulmates during the war, fighting a common enemy, that closeness was becoming strained. Paley felt he had to compromise with the government, the sponsors. Murrow felt, at first, that broadcast news could not suffer, should not be compromised. It would eventually take its toll on Murrow as he tried to straddle both worlds.
As a television journalist, Murrow used his position to challenge the "situations of fear" he saw confronting American society. Possibly his most famous encounter was with the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. Murrow pointed out that the line between investigation and persecution is a fine one. The junior Senator, he felt had crossed that line. Some say Murrow was partially responsible for McCarthy's downfall. What was certain is that he helped allay some of the fear created by the McCarthy investigations.