September 21, 2010
The first Kennedy-Nixon debate on Sept. 26, 1960, moderated by Howard K. Smith. (Estate of Howard K. Smith/Newseum collection)

The first Kennedy-Nixon debate on Sept. 26, 1960, moderated by Howard K. Smith. (Estate of Howard K. Smith/Newseum collection)

50 Years Ago in News History: The Kennedy-Nixon Debates

Fifty years ago on Sept. 26, 1960, millions of Americans tuned their TV and radio sets to a live presidential debate, the first in history to be televised.

The candidates — Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon — participated in three additional "Great Debates," but it was the first meeting in Chicago that reshaped the way elections thereafter were covered and ultimately launched television as the dominant source for news.

Though both candidates were knowledgeable of domestic issues, which were the focus of the first debate, the physical difference between them was striking.

Kennedy was tall, tan and poised, with a face ready-made for the young medium of television. Nixon had a staph infection, a five o'clock shadow and a voice that was perfect for radio.

The question of who won the debate depended on which technology voters relied. Viewers who watched on TV overwhelmingly thought Kennedy won by a landslide. Nixon was considered the victor by a majority of radio listeners.

Don Hewitt, the producer of "60 Minutes" who died in 2009, directed the historic debates. In 2004, he recalled how television helped inaugurate Kennedy's presidency.

"I remember they looked like they were mismatched. Jack Kennedy looked like some Harvard undergrad — tan, fit, walked into that studio like he owned the world," Hewitt said. "Richard Nixon had a staphylococcus infection, banged his knee on the car door when he got out. Looked like death warmed over. … We offered to put some makeup on [Nixon], but he said no, because he didn't want people to say he used makeup and Kennedy didn't. … When the first debate was over, I said, ‘My God, we don't have to wait for election night. … I just produced a television show that elected a president of the United States.'"

In the general election, Kennedy won the popular vote 49.7 percent to Nixon's 49.6 percent, one of the closest margins of victory in U.S. history. The original notes he took during the first debate are currently on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

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