The real hot seat in tonight's debate won’t be occupied by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton: Moderator Lester Holt will be evaluated for how well he referees the candidates during their first presidential debate, and what is likely to be an intense verbal sparring session.
You may recognize Holt from various NBC news programs, but there’s a lot more to the broadcaster than hosting murder mysteries on Dateline NBC. Check out a few things we’ve discovered about his career trajectory, the time he took his girlfriend on a date to a forest fire, and why he's known as "Iron Pants."
1. HE WAS KICKED OUT OF A RADIO STATION IN ALASKA.
The son of an Air Force technician, Holt and his family moved around a lot over the years. While his father was stationed in Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, an 11-year-old Holt got an opportunity to see broadcasting firsthand when his half-brother Mike Swanigan, a radio station employee, snuck him into local affiliate KTVA. The program directors at the station were less than charmed; they repeatedly kicked Holt out.
2. HE TOOK HIGH SCHOOL ANNOUNCEMENTS VERY SERIOUSLY.
As a teenager, Holt already knew he was destined for a career in journalism and broadcasting. While enrolled at Cordova High School near Sacramento in the early 1970s, Holt made daily announcements over the public address system. His mother recalled that Holt took the limited-exposure gig pretty seriously, even developing a sign-off: “And you’re up to date.”
3. HE BROKE HIS FIRST STORY AT 16.
Holt was so driven to get into journalism that he talked his way into an internship at Sacramento-area television station KCRA while still in high school. He slowly ingratiated himself with the news team, occasionally getting to do voiceovers for commercials and eventually convincing producers to let him shoot a news segment about the lack of diversity in the local police department. He was just 16 at the time.
4. HE WAS KNOWN AS “LIGHTNING BOLT HOLT.”
After getting a DJ gig at country music station KRAK in 1976, Holt earned the nickname “Lightning Bolt Holt” for being one of the first non-emergency responders on the scene for accidents. Holt’s KRAK-issued Jeep Cherokee had police scanners, which allowed Holt to arrive in time to get the scoops. His passion for the news even took priority over his education: Holt would later drop out of Sacramento State University in order to take a job with KCBS radio.
5. HE TOOK HIS FUTURE WIFE ON A DATE TO A FOREST FIRE.
There was never any off-duty switch for Holt, who passionately pursued news stories regardless of the day or time. While dating future spouse Carol Hagen, Holt was dispatched to a forest fire in Napa Valley. Instead of canceling, Holt asked her if she wanted to come along: They watched the blaze from the back of a patrol car. The two were married in 1982.
6. HE SPENT 14 YEARS AS A LOCAL NEWS ANCHOR.
Living the definition of “putting in the time,” in 1986 Holt accepted an offer from Chicago’s WBBM-TV, a CBS affiliate, to anchor their nightly newscast. Holt’s arrival came on the heels of former anchor Harry Porterfield’s departure; as the only black anchor seen daily, Porterfield’s dismissal was protested by Jesse Jackson. After that incendiary incident passed, Holt settled into a 14-year tenure at WBBM before moving to MSNBC in 2000.
7. COLLEAGUES CALLED HIM “IRON PANTS.”
Shortly after Holt arrived at the then-fledging MSNBC network, breaking news on air disasters and the 2000 election recount coverage kept him on the air for hours at a stretch. Holt’s ability to remain focused and vigilant despite the long shifts led co-workers to give him a new nickname: “Iron Pants.” The work ethic eventually led to gigs on Dateline NBC and the Today Show before replacing Brian Williams as anchor of the Nightly News in June 2015.
8. BUT HE’S NOT HAPPY SITTING DOWN.
Holt has cautioned young journalists eyeing an anchor spot of the “golden handcuff” dynamic, which he described to Sactown Magazine in 2012 as being a little too much of a good thing. “One of the dirty little secrets about being an anchor—while it’s prestigious and gives you a little more editorial input and often pays a little bit more money—is that it can sometimes be like golden handcuffs,” he said. “You don’t get to leave the building. And I always tell young journalists who say, ‘I want to be the next Brian Williams or Lester Holt or Matt Lauer,’ it’s great to be an anchor, but the most exciting and best times I’ve had in my years in this business have been outside the studio, not sitting at a desk.”
9. HE CAN ANNOY CO-WORKERS WITH HIS BASS GUITAR.
Holt took up bass guitar and jazz while still in high school and still likes to bust out instruments as a stress reliever. “Sometimes I get carried away and crank up the amp and I rock out,” he told the Today Show blog in 2007. “It’s kind of my stress reliever.” Holt has been known to play with former House star Hugh Laurie as well as Earth, Wind, and Fire.
10. HE CAN IDENTIFY PLANES JUST BY HEARING THEM.
Thanks to his father’s Air Force tenure, Holt has a formidable knowledge of planes. “Very often I can sit and hear a plane go over and say that is probably an A320,” he told Parade in 2015. “A good percentage of the time I am right. I can even tell you the kind of engine it has. That is seriously geeky.”
11. HE MIGHT HAVE A BEER WITH YOU.
Holt says he’s always tried to be a broadcaster with a personable disposition—a guy you might want to have a beer with. So when a bunch of software salesmen invited him to do just that in a hotel lobby in 2007, he accepted. “How could I not?” he told the New York Daily News. “What kind of guy would I be if I didn't? ... We talked about the things people our age talk about. I enjoyed it. That's the kind of approachability I want.”