Kaity Tong was the first Asian American anchor of a...

Kaity Tong was the first Asian American anchor of a New York newscast. Credit: Kaity Tong

After 43 years on New York TV, the past 32 at WPIX/11, Kaity Tong was where we've always found her just as the Oscars were wrapping last Sunday night. As long-running anchor of the station's weekend 10 p.m. news, she went through the usual rundown of stories and teases. From behind the anchor desk, she appeared to be who she has always been. More remarkably, she looked like who she has always been.

Away from the anchor desk has been another story altogether.

Last December, Tong, 76, said on Instagram that she had been diagnosed with stage 1 lung cancer — “me! a nonsmoker my entire life” — and that she had undergone robotic surgery to remove the tumor.

The reason she was revealing this, she explained, was because her doctors “told me this diagnosis is increasingly common among Asians, especially women, who are nonsmokers. That would be me. And maybe that’s you.” She then urged viewers to get tested.

After a short time off the air, Tong returned to the anchor desk earlier this year, but in texts and emails to Newsday, she said her recovery has been arduous and that her doctors have told her that recovery takes “six months to a year.”

At first, she says, she could barely walk a block. Now it takes all her energy simply to show up for work two days a week, she said. 

As part of its Women's History Month coverage, Newsday has been focusing on notable women who have trailblazed paths for countless others. Tong, New York TV news' first Asian American anchor, is one of them.

Born in China, raised in Washington, D.C., Tong was wrapping a Ph.D. program at Stanford in Chinese and Japanese literature in the late '70s, when she took a summer job at an all-news radio station in San Francisco. That led to a TV reporter job in that city, then as an anchor in Sacramento. She was hired at WABC/7 in 1981 and over the next 10 years, became among the most popular anchors on local news.

Then, abruptly and she says without explanation, Tong was dropped by the station. A coalition was launched to protest her firing, and on April 18, 1991, 200 supporters turned up at Ch. 7 headquarters on Columbus Avenue to demand her reinstatement. (That was a tough year for female pioneers — WNBC/4's Pat Harper had been dropped just weeks before.)

Tong joined Ch. 11 later in 1991 and has remained there since. Her boss at the station, news director Nicole Tindiglia, calls her a “local news pioneer who has guided New Yorkers through unprecedented times. She's an inspiration and leader to us all.”

Tong said she was unable to do an in-person interview because of her ongoing health issues. Instead, we conducted one via email:

Let's address your health. How are you doing, and when do you think everything will be back to normal?

WPIX anchor Kaity Tong remains on air as she recovers from...

WPIX anchor Kaity Tong remains on air as she recovers from lung cancer. Credit: Kaity Tong

It's now been about three months since my lung cancer surgery and I must admit the recovery has been harder than I'd expected. Right after the surgery, which removed one of three lobes of my right lung, I couldn't even walk a block and a half without stopping to catch my breath. My doctors tell me to be patient, that it will take six months to a year before I feel like myself. I'm not a patient person and to relearn how to breathe while delivering the news and having much less energy has been frustrating. But there is progress. I've gone from struggling to walk … to being able to take the subway again and getting my steps in. The station has been very supportive in my recovery and the viewers have kept my spirits up with their wonderfully uplifting comments.

Back when you joined Ch. 7, in 1981, had it occurred to you that you would be the “first” — or, for that matter, a trailblazer?

The thought of being a trailblazer of any kind never crossed my mind! I was just so happy to be offered a job in the greatest city in the world with the No. 1-rated news station in the No. 1 market.

What was it like back in those early days with Tom Snyder, John Johnson, Bill Beutel, Roger Grimsby and Ernie Anastos [her anchoring partners]? I know you became popular quickly, but was it harder behind the scenes with some of them — dealing with the usual nonsense, like sexism or racism?

Kaity Tong and her former "Eyewitness News" co-anchor Ernie Anastos...

Kaity Tong and her former "Eyewitness News" co-anchor Ernie Anastos attend 60th Anniversary New York Emmy Awards Gala  in 2017 in New York City.   Credit: WireImage/John Lamparski

Roger Grimsby was a tough nut to crack. But I think his initially dismissive attitude toward me was not because I was Chinese or a woman, but because in his mind I was a rookie. And I think there was that initial attitude from others in the newsroom as well. Did I belong there? Was I good enough? I think I proved I was. I refused to be intimidated, gave as good as I got, and maybe most importantly, I made them laugh. The respect became mutual.

Roger and I ended up lifelong friends … Bill Beutel was a gentleman from the get-go [but] ultimately, it was my close friendships with many of the women who worked there that sustained me. All strong, accomplished and funny — women that I am still close to today.

There are never protests over anchor firings, but you got one in 1991. People I spoke with were genuinely upset — you meant something to them, obviously. Had that ever occurred to you as well?

New York's Asian American community rallied in support of Kaity Tong...

New York's Asian American community rallied in support of Kaity Tong after she was replaced on WABC-TV's "Eyewitness News" in 1991. Credit: Frances Chu

That protest was incredible to me. I was astounded that people cared that much. Looking back, it's really gratifying to think this was before social media — this was picking up the phone, writing letters, showing up in person with a poster or a sign. I began to realize early on that for many viewers I was more than just an anchor when I began getting letters from girls of Asian American heritage who would tell me how they were so happy to see someone doing the news who looked like them. And when mothers told me they had named their daughters after me, not just Asian moms but Hispanic and Caucasian ones as well.

I feel very humbled by this. What an amazing honor and a great responsibility. It makes me think of the day I started kindergarten. Me, this little girl who didn't speak a single word of English, shy and scared, as my mother solemnly said to me, 'You carry on your shoulders the reputation not just of our family, but that of the entire Chinese people as well!' I was 5 years old. Thanks, Mom!

Why did Ch. 7 let you go?

I still am not clear about why. I'm sure part of it was that Walter Liss, the new GM and I did not get along at all, but our numbers were stellar [she left a top-rated newscast at the top-rated local news station]. I had a feeling things were not going well when he kept asking me into his office so that he could coach me on the proper way to anchor. [Liss died in 2022.]

Of course, we have to talk about Ch. 11. What's been the high point of your 30 years at the station? And feel free to share a low point, too, if there was one.

Ch. 11 anchors Jim Watkins and Kaity Tong at the tree...

Ch. 11 anchors Jim Watkins and Kaity Tong at the tree lighting and ice spectacular event at Uniondale's Reckson Plaza in 2006. Credit: Pablo Corradi

One of the highlights was working with Jim Watkins. We had great chemistry in the 12-plus years we co-anchored together. It was effortless and we covered many big stories together, including 9/11. [Watkins, who joined Ch. 11 in 1998 as Tong's co-anchor, left in 2011.]

A low point was when we lost all our wonderful makeup artists because of the pandemic, and they are still not back.


Women news pioneers? New York TV has had a few. Here are just some of the most noteworthy:


Tolliver, 85, became the first-ever Black female anchor of a national news program in 1967 when she filled in for Marlene Sanders on ABC's “News with the Woman's Touch,” then the following year became a reporter for WABC/7, one of the very first Black reporters — male or female — for a local station. Later she became a fashion icon — for hair! — when she refused to cover her Afro with a scarf when covering Tricia Nixon's wedding for Ch. 7 in 1971.


The first woman to anchor a New York TV news program, Harper — who died of a heart attack in 1994 at 59 — was in fact a co-anchor with her then-husband Joe Harper of WPIX/11's “Action News.” She later became the second woman (after Barbara Walters) to co-anchor a national news program, “Independent Network News” (which originated at Ch. 11), starting in 1979.


Long tagged with the honor of being New York's “first Latina TV reporter,” Rojas — who died in 2022 at the age of 82 — began her run in 1968 at WCBS/2, then trailblazed her way through the other major stations over a 23-year career. Famously — or ruefully — she once said, “I remember thinking, if they hire another Hispanic, they'll have to let me go, since who needs two?”


Jenkins, 79, formerly an anchor and reporter for WNBC/4 over a quarter-century, was the first female co-host of “Positively Black” (starting in 1973), and one of New York's first Black female reporters (at WOR/9) in 1970; she was also first president of the Women's Media Center, founded in 2005 to “raise the visibility, viability and decision-making power of women and girls in media,” per its mission statement.


Mary Walther O'Hara — known on TV as Carol Reed — was local TV's first female weather anchor, for WCBS/2, from 1952 to 1964, where she would sign off her twice daily reports with “Have a happy!” O'Hara — who also hosted a syndicated radio program — died in 1970. She was just 44.


An actress in the 1930s, then later star of Westinghouse commercials, Furness found her calling as a consumer advocate (first for the Lyndon B. Johnson administration) and starting in 1974, as a consumer reporter for Ch. 4 — local TV's first. She died in 1994 at 78.


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