Graham McNamee's father, John B., was an attorney and legal advisor to President Grover Cleveland's cabinet, and his mother, Anne, was a homemaker, who also sang in a church choir. Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, McNamee had early aspirations of being an opera singer. He studied voice as a youth and sang in churches, and in 1922 gave a concert in Aeolian Hall, New York. In 1922, while serving jury duty in New York City, he visited the studios of radio station WEAF en route to the courthouse and, on a whim, went to audition as a singer. Someone noticed his voice and asked him to speak through a microphone. He was given an audition and hired as a staff announcer on the spot.
Radio broadcasting of sporting events was a new thing in the 1920s. The play-by-play announcements were performed by a rotating group of newspaper writers. Their descriptions were matter-of-fact and boring at best. In 1923, announcer McNamee was assigned to help the sportswriters liven up their broadcasts. He wasn't a baseball expert, but had a knack for conveying what he saw in great detail, and with great enthusiasm. He became broadcasting first as a color commentator, bringing the sights and sounds of the game into the homes of listeners.
McNamee had various on-air responsibilities at WEAF, including baseball color commentary culminating in play-by-play of the 1926 World Series. Over the course of the next decade, first with WEAF and then with the national NBC network, McNamee broadcast numerous sports events (including several World Series, Rose Bowls, championship boxing matches), Indianapolis 500, national political conventions, presidential inaugurations and the arrival of aviator Charles Lindbergh in New York City following his transatlantic flight to Paris, France in 1927. Later that year, McNamee was featured on the cover of Time (October 3, 1927).
With Phillips Carlin, whose voice was so similar that few listeners could tell them apart, he quickly became famous. In 1923, he described the Harry Greb-Johnny Wilson boxing match and covered many World Series baseball games and the top football games for years. He also covered many major news events outside the sports world, described the Republican and Democratic National conventions and the inauguration ceremonies of presidents. In the early 1940s his principal activity was as a newsreel commentator, but he maintained much of his radio work as well.
In 1925, at the Radio World Fair, he won a solid gold cup (designed like a microphone) as America's most popular announcer, receiving 189,470 votes out of 1,161,659 votes cast. He was married to concert and church soprano Josephine Garrett.
McNamee continued to broadcast into the 1930s, as an announcer on Ed Wynn's and Rudy Vallee's weekly programs. He played straight man for Wynn, reacting to Wynn's gags. He also worked in motion pictures, narrating Krakatoa (1933), Universal Pictures' weekly Universal Newsreels, and Camera Thrills (1935), an Academy Award-nominated short subject produced and directed by Charles E. Ford. In the early 1940s, he hosted Behind the Mike for NBC.
He opened each broadcast by saying, "Good afternoon (or evening), ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience. This is Graham McNamee speaking."
He was married twice: the first time, in 1921, to singer Josephine Garrett. They were divorced in 1932, and he married Anne Lee Sims in 1934.
McNamee died on May 9, 1942 at St. Lukes Hospital at the age of 53. The cause of death was a brain embolism after he had been hospitalized with a streptococcus infection. He was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio.
In 1964, McNamee was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. In 1984, he was part of the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame’s inaugural class, which included sportscasting legends Red Barber, Don Dunphy, Ted Husing and Bill Stern.
The National Radio Hall of Fame inducted McNamee in 2011.
- "Voices," Time, October 3, 1927.
- Moore, Thomas F. (October 12, 1964). "Sports Announcer By Accident". Sports Illustrated.
- "Graham McNamee, Pioneer Radio Annoucer, Dies". United Press in St. Petersburg Times. May 10, 1942. Retrieved 2013-11-26.
- "Graham M'Namee Is Dead Here At 53". New York Times. May 18, 1942. Retrieved 2013-11-26. "Radio Announcer, Pioneer in Field, Stricken in Hospital. Victim of an Embolism. Led in Sports Coverage for Many Years. Had Toured Country as a Baritone. ..."
- Miller, C. L. (2008), Images of America: Mount Calvary Cemetery, Arcadia Publishing, p. 126, ISBN 0-7385-5205-4.
- Schmidt, Raymond. "Graham McNamee Biographical Entry." Scribner's Encyclopedia of American Lives, 2002 edition, volume 2, pp. 96–97.
- National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame: Remembering... Graham McNamee
- American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame: 1984 inductee
- 1888 Graham McNamee 1942 - Obit from Broadcasting Magazine, 18 May, 1942 - also includes obit from Cleveland Plain Dealer 11 May 1942