Palmer’s wife Nancy confirmed he died at George Washington University Hospital of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 77.
The gentlemanly Palmer worked for NBC from 1962 to 1990, and then returned to the network from 1994 until 2002.
“John was a brilliant, brave, and tireless journalist who guided viewers through many of the most significant events of the past half-century - from the early days of the civil rights movement through the tragedy of 9/11,” NBC News said in a statement. “He covered five presidents and traveled to every corner of the world, always showing the empathy and compassion that helped set him apart. His kindness is remembered by all of us, and it built lasting bonds throughout our news division. ”
He served as a correspondent in Chicago, Paris and Beirut, as well as at the White House. In 1980 he landed one of his biggest scoops, breaking the news of the Carter administration’s failed attempt to rescue the American hostages being held in Iran.
“John Palmer brought to the White House beat his foreign policy experience and a steady reassuring voice, in good times and in bad,” NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell said in describing Palmer for a report aired Saturday evening.
It was at NBC’s Washington news bureau that Palmer met his wife, Nancy, a Nightly News producer.
In 1982 he became news anchor on the “Today” show during the period when Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley co-hosted, bringing a seriousness and calm to the program as he informed viewers of major events. He remained there until 1989, when he was abruptly replaced by Deborah Norville and handed her old job on the show that preceded it, “NBC News at Sunrise.”
In 1986, he anchored the first hours of NBC’s coverage of the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
Palmer left the network in 1990 to emcee a syndicated news-oriented program, hosted the weekly “Discovery Journal” on The Discovery Channel, and anchored a daily newscast on the TV channel of the Christian Science Monitor.
In 1994, he was invited back to NBC as a Washington correspondent.
Speaking to anchor Brian Williams on NBC sister network MSNBC upon his retirement in 2002, Palmer looked back on his tenure with satisfaction, including the access it gave him to a succession of the nation’s chief executives.
“I was enriched as a kid from the East Tennessee mountains,” said the Kingsport, Tenn., native, “to be able to go fishing with Jimmy Carter, to go to the movies with Ronald Reagan, and to play golf with Bill Clinton.”
After exiting NBC, he continued to work in journalism, including through hosting roles on Retirement Living TV, a network dedicated to seniors.
Palmer was a graduate of Northwestern University and held a master’s degree from Columbia University.
“John loved Sinatra, golf and fishing, but his most treasured role was that of husband and father,” Mitchell reported Saturday night.
He and his wife Nancy have three grown daughters, one of whom is a producer for the Today show, one who works in the entertainment industry and one who is pursuing a journalism career in Washington.