Winfrey, 68, posted a photo with Walters via Instagram on Friday night, minutes after the tragic news broke.
“Without Barbara Walters there wouldn’t have been me — nor any other woman you see on evening, morning, and daily news,” Winfrey began. “She was indeed a Trailblazer. I did my very first television audition with her in mind the whole time.”
“Grateful that she was such a powerful and gracious role model,” she continued in the moving tribute, which showcased a photo of the two women smiling and leaning into one another on set. “Grateful to have known her. Grateful to have followed in her Light.”
This isn’t the first time Winfrey has praised Walters.
In 2014 — when Walters retired after 17 years on The View, the ABC talk show she created in 1997 — Winfrey surprised the TV pioneer as a guest co-host for her legendary send-off.
“I had to be here for your last show, to celebrate you, because of what you have meant to me,” Winfrey told Walters. “You have literally meant the world to me. … Like everyone else, I want to thank you for being a pioneer and everything that word means. It means being the first; the first in the room to knock down the door, to break down the barriers, to pave the road that we all walk on. I thank you for that. And I thank you for the courage it took every day to get up and keep doing it.”
“As you embark on this next chapter of your life, I wish for all that you also wished for me at the time,” Winfrey added, recalling the support Walters gave her when she retired. “You said to me, ‘I want you to take a little rest.’ I not only want you to rest, I want you to have everything that your heart desires.”
The OWN founder went on to joke about how she used to imitate Walters at the beginning of her career, a story Winfrey first told Walters in 1988 when she appeared on the Barbara Walters Special.
“When I auditioned for my first television job, I walked in not knowing what to do so I pretended to be Barbara Walters,” Winfrey recalled on The View. “I pretended to be her. I sat like Barbara. I crossed my legs like Barbara. I tried to talk like Barbara. I had Barbara in my head for about a year until one night I mispronounced Canada and called it Ca-nada. And that is not what Barbara Walters would do. And it was the first time I had a breakthrough to be myself, but you paved the road for that to happen for me.”
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Walters died Friday evening, her representative Cindi Berger told PEOPLE.
“Barbara Walters passed away peacefully in her home surrounded by loved ones,” Berger said. “She lived a big life. She lived her life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not only for female journalists, but for all women.”
The legendary broadcaster had a number of first in television, including being the first female anchor on the Today show and the first woman to co-anchor a nightly news broadcast.
That experience, on ABC World News Tonight alongside Harry Reasoner, was rather hostile with Reasoner famously pushing against the notion of wanting to work with a co-anchor at all, let along a female. She called the experience the biggest failure of her career.
But that failure drove Walters on to her greatest achievement and the thing that she’s said saved her career: Her long, long string of interview specials, which allowed her to develop (and institutionalize) a gauzy but shrewd technique that lured anyone with serious power or celebrity down to the pop-culture river and immersed them and baptized them.
Walters, in a 2014 ABC TV special commemorating her career, famously said she often knows “more about the person than he or she knows about themselves,” and was known for holding her own no matter which superstar, president or even accused murderer she was interviewing. And always kept it classy.
She also spoke out about how she wanted to be thought of after death, saying, “I want to be remembered by my daughter as a good and loving mother; I want to be remembered by my friends as somebody who is loyal; I want to be remembered in television, maybe as a creator, maybe as a good news woman — no, more than being remembered, I hope that by younger woman, I can help them aspire.”
That couldn’t have clearer than on Walters’ last episode of The View, when Winfrey welcomed a long and varied parade of other newswomen, including Diane Sawyer, Connie Chung and Kathie Lee Gifford, Savannah Guthrie, Katie Couric, Hoda Kotb, and more. “Many of the incredible women that have been influenced by you — and we all have been influenced by you — are here for you today,” Winfrey said. “And we all proudly stand on your shoulders, Barbara Walters, as we honor you.”
“This is my legacy,” said Walters, gesturing to them all. “These are my legacy.”