And more famously, he produced and directed the first televised presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, in 1960.
The historic debate, in which TV viewers generally considered Kennedy the winner while radio listeners felt Nixon had won, established the power of television in national politics.
After heading a new documentary unit at CBS in the mid-1960s, Hewitt created "60 Minutes," his most successful, acclaimed and profitable program, which he executive-produced for 36 years.
Former Times television critic Howard Rosenberg once described Hewitt as "an extraordinary TV bossman/showman, a tough, blunt, imaginative and spit-in-your-eye deliverer of highly watchable journalism and highly bankable ratings."
In May 1980, "60 Minutes" was the No. 1 show of the 1979-80 season -- a feat it would achieve five times during Hewitt's reign.
As Hewitt once told Rolling Stone magazine: "The trick is to grab the viewer by the throat, not let his mind wander and start thinking about what else might be going on."
Once characterized in the Washington Post as loud, pugnacious, spleeny "and having the attention span of a hummingbird," Hewitt shunned formal editorial meetings. "If we had meetings, the show would look like a meeting," he reasoned. He was known for telling his correspondents and producers to "just tell me a story."
Behind the scenes, Hewitt also was well-known for his screaming matches with his big-name correspondents, a form of verbal combat that Safer once described as "mutual torture sessions."
Tough but fair
"He was a tough, tough editor, and all of us who worked with him had some of the worst arguments -- practically blood-on-the-floor arguments -- over stories and how they're covered," Safer told The Times on Wednesday. "But he had a remarkable gift. Fifteen minutes later, it was as if it had never happened. There was no grudge.
"It will not surprise you to learn there's a fair amount of ego-inflating in this office and, I dare say, I can include myself and certainly Don. But he was wonderfully fair in whatever glory was heaped on CBS News or on him or '60 Minutes.' He was very generous about sharing it. And he stood up for his guys."
Hewitt's death came a month after that of another CBS News icon, Walter Cronkite.
"It was a rough couple of weeks with Walter going, two really terrific but totally different people," said Safer, who described Hewitt as an old-fashioned, "Front Page"-style journalist who functioned "by the seat of his pants."
"He was just a great, legendary editor," Safer said. "And Don's hands on a story always made it leaner, tougher, more direct and more readily understandable. Which is the job of an editor, and he was absolutely superb at it."
Hewitt was born Dec. 14, 1922, in New York City, but his family soon moved to Boston, where his father worked as the classified advertising manager for the Boston Herald American. By the time Hewitt was 6, his family was living in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Inspired by maverick, big-city reporter Hildy Johnson in the newspaper comedy "The Front Page," the 8-year-old Hewitt hatched his dream of becoming a newspaper reporter.
After graduating from high school in 1940, he attended New York University on a track scholarship. But he dropped out in the middle of his sophomore year and took a $15-a-week job as a late-shift copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune. He also worked days as a reporter and editor for a weekly newspaper in Pelham, N.Y.
During World War II, Hewitt crossed the Atlantic in a convoy of cargo ships as a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadet and then got a job in London covering the Merchant Marine for Stars and Stripes newspaper. He later returned to sea as an ensign in the Naval Reserve.