NBC News colleagues tell PEOPLE about Welker's journey to the moderator's chair, as she becomes the first Black journalist to lead one of the major Sunday public affairs shows
Kristen Welker will make history on Sunday when she takes over the desk at Meet the Press, making her the first Black journalist to moderate a Sunday public affairs program and only the second woman to ever moderate the NBC show.
Chuck Todd helmed his last episode as moderator this past Sunday, closing out his nine-year tenure with a special segment in which he officially handed the reins to Welker.
“You push yourself hard. You work really hard. You prepare. You out-prepare so many people,” Todd said to his successor before presenting her with a gift on-air: his vintage, battery-backup alarm clock that he's used for nearly a decade.
Welker — who joined NBC News in 2010 as a network correspondent — likely won't need the help getting to work on time. Colleagues say no one comes to work as prepared than the 47-year-old political journalist, a consummate professional with ample experience covering hard news and even moderating the final presidential matchup between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in 2020.
"Kristen has this incredible wealth of knowledge and insight into Washington that I have on occasions leaned on while preparing for major interviews," NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt tells PEOPLE of Welker. "Nobody does their homework or prepares more thoroughly than Kristen. No matter what she does she is all in."
Holt has worked closely with Welker in the past, including in 2016, during prep for the debate between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Holt was moderating the debate, while Welker assisted with research — and, the legendary anchor says, with a spot-on impersonation of one of the candidates.
"Kristen had been covering the Clinton campaign and was part of the research team that helped me refine questions," Holt says. "At one point she took the role of Clinton during a few internal mock debates we ran to test the flow and timing of the debate, and boy did she nail it."
He continues: "From body language to talking points, she took on Clinton’s possible responses to various scenarios and topics with uncanny precision. After that, parts of the actual debate felt like moments of déjà vu."
Today co-host Savannah Guthrie still remembers the impression Welker made when she first started working at NBC News.
"Chuck and I were at the White House and almost immediately both of us said, 'That's our next White House correspondent.' I can't think of anyone more perfect for this role than Kristen," Guthrie tells PEOPLE. "She is incredibly fair, hardworking, tireless, and she loves politics — I think that's the secret ingredient."
Guthrie says that her admiration goes beyond Welker's professional talent: "Not only do I appreciate her as a colleague, I appreciate her as a friend. She is the first person to call you when something good happens in your life, whether it's something related to work or something personal."
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Today co-host Hoda Kotb also recognizes the joy Welker brings to the room, saying she's "the perfect combination of brilliant and kind."
"She is the person you always root for — and do you know why? Because she has spent her whole career rooting for everyone else! Now it is her turn, and I am so proud of her," Kotb adds.
And Today's Al Roker backs up Kotb's assessment, saying Welker "already possesses everything she needs to be an amazing moderator of Meet the Press. She is smart, inquisitive, respectful, yet challenging. A wonderful smile, lovely sense of humor and a terrific mom."
(Welker, who welcomed daughter Margot via surrogate in June 2021, has spoken publicly about her infertility journey and the challenges faced by many when it comes to starting a family.)
As for the pressure that will no doubt come with taking the baton at such an iconic program, the show's previous host, Todd, says Welker is more than cut out for the job.
"The key to success at Meet the Press, and really the legacy this show is built on, is to not let the prospect of criticism put you off of revealing and scrutinizing the viewpoints each guest brings to the table, no matter how controversial," Todd tells PEOPLE. "And what Kristen has in her journalism DNA is just that: a determination to get the story and the truth no matter how popular or unpopular that truth is. It’s what makes her equipped to succeed."
While the role will be new for Welker, she has plenty of experience behind her.
Speaking to PEOPLE in 2020, the journalist spoke about the responsibility of having a career in political news, saying, “Every time I walk through the White House gates, if you don't stop and take it in and recognize that you are a witness to history, it's time for you, frankly, to get a new job… Because every minute of everything that we're covering is history-making and frankly remarkable."
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