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Hugh Downs, former 'Today' show anchor and broadcasting icon, dies at 99

The Emmy-award winning broadcaster became a household name around the country during one of the country's most turbulent periods.

Broadcasting icon Hugh Downs died on Wednesday at his Scottsdale, Arizona, home at the age of 99, his family confirmed to NBC News on Thursday.

Downs, an Ohio native, joined NBC in Chicago after he served in the Army and soon became a fixture in American households. The Emmy Award-winning broadcaster served as a “Today” show anchor for nine years from 1962 to 1971, one of the country's most turbulent periods.

Downs spoke on air during some of the most profound moments in American history, such as the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.

NBC News' Hugh Downs.
NBC News' Hugh Downs.NBC NewsWire

One of Downs’ first producers has also become a household name in America: Barbara Walters. The duo worked together again years later when Downs joined her on ABC’s “20/20” in 1978, where Downs remained until his 1999 retirement from broadcast.

Walters and Downs were briefly reunited in Studio 1A at Rockefeller Center in 2012 for the 60th anniversary of “Today.” During interviews for the anniversary special, Downs reflected on his own legacy.

"I would like it if people remembered me as being fair and enjoying what I did and being honest with the audience," Downs said in 2012. "Because I just could not, under any circumstance, say something I didn’t believe in or something that I thought was wrong.

NBC News- 1st Presidential Inauguration of Richard Nixon
NBC News' Hugh Downs, Barbara Walters covering the first Presidential inauguration of Richard Nixon on Janu. 20, 1969 in Washington, D.C.NBC Newswire

In the 1950s and 1960s, Downs had a hand in some of the programs that have transformed NBC and worked to shape the network's history. In 1957 he helped establish “The Tonight Show” franchise by joining the show as Jack Paar's announcer and sidekick, the same franchise now hosted by Jimmy Fallon more than 60 years later.

Almost simultaneously with his run on “Today,” Downs also hosted an NBC game show called “Concentration” from 1958 to 1969, a memory game where contestants tried to find matching pairs of cards on a game board.

Downs certified by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1985 for having the most hours on network television, with more than 15,000 hours.

Journalists and fans of Downs honored his enduring legacy on social media Thursday, sharing clips from his career and memories of watching the icon on air. MSNBC's Steve Kornacki shared a clip on Twitter of Downs reporting from Key West on Ernest Hemingway in 1962.

Geraldo Rivera called Downs a "great American" and dear friend in a tweet Thursday.

"A true gentleman adventurer, we raced my sailboat & soared in his glider," Rivera wrote. "Along with his late wife Ruth, he bridged generations with his erudite, compassionate, smart broadcasts."

The Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University has a page dedicated to Downs, where it says Downs personifies the school’s mission with his “nuanced understanding of human communication across a wide array of contexts.”

“We in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication feel very fortunate that Mr. Downs was generous enough to share his name with our school,” the website says.

CORRECTION (July 2, 2020, 7:05 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the host of "The Tonight Show" in 1957. It is Jack Paar, not Jack Parr.