The 65-year-old TV host, who's been on the program for more than 10 years, emotionally announced on the fourth hour of Today that she would be leaving the NBC morning show. Gifford plans to stay on as Hoda Kotb's co-host through April 7, 2019, the 11th anniversary of her being on Today.
In her tearful announcement, Gifford praised 54-year-old Kotb and their years together and expressed love for the entire Today family.
"I have something to share with everybody and it's bittersweet, as these things always are, but I've been here almost 11 years. Thought I would stay one year. Something happened along the way. Fell in love with a beautiful Egyptian goddess and now, when it's our 11th anniversary, I'm gonna be leaving the Today show," Gifford said. "It's an exciting time for me and I'm thrilled about all the projects that are coming up, but it's also hard because the reason that I stayed longer than a year is because I love everybody here so much."
"I've been in this business 120 years and [have] never worked with a more beautiful group of people who just give, give, give every day for four hours of live television every day, five days a week," Gifford continued. "And we have fun and we laugh and we support one another and we know each other's kids' names. We know when somebody's having a colonoscopy. We know everything! We do life together. We do life together. And nobody more so than my Hoda."
Of leaving both Today and Kotb, Gifford compared the upcoming departure to when she left Live With Regis and Kathie Lee in 2000.
"It's gonna happen the same way it did with Regis," she said of her former co-host, Regis Philbin. "When I left Regis it was hard, but I'm closer with him now than I was after 15 years together. You don't share that kind of life together and not be changed forever by it. So I love you, Hoda Mama... You're just so special, Hoda. Thank you. Thank you so much."
When it came time for Kotb to reminisce, she described how "everything changed" the moment Gifford stepped into her life, even crediting her with meeting her partner, Joel Schiffman, and their eventual daughter, Haley.
"The minute you stepped into my life with both feet, everything changed," Kotb gushed. "I knew today was happening and I was scribbling in my journal about you and I was... writing everything down and I thought about the day that you chose me. And that's how it started. I was thinking about everything good that's happened in my life has happened since you came."
"I was even thinking about everything from... I met Joel because I had to give a speech. Why did I have to give a speech? Because I worked here; because I worked with you. I wouldn't have been there that day. I met him. Haley came as a result of our union, me and Joel," Kotb continued. "Everything happened and I remember thinking about how does one person step in your life and change it like that? You did that for me."
Kotb went on to recall a conversation with Gifford's late husband, Frank Gifford.
"I remember on the very first day when you said, 'I'm thinking about coming to the Today show.' And I still remember you said, 'Well, I want you to come out and meet my family.' And I remember thinking, 'Wow.' I'd never worked with anyone who said that. I didn't even know that was a thing," Kotb tearfully said. "So I went to your house and I remember Frank said to me, 'I've been in television for a while and I want to tell you something.' He said, 'The only way a show works is if you trust that someone's gonna catch you.' And he said, 'I don't know about you, because I don't know you, but I know that you are about to work with the most trustworthy person on Earth.' And he was right. Because our show is about catching each other when you fall down. That's it."
"I cannot believe we're on TV and this is happening," Kotb finished.
When the focus turned back to Gifford, she thought back to the early days of the show and marveled at how quickly she and Kotb became friends.
"I want to thank everybody who's watched us all these years as well, because we started out as a nothing burger and we were outside on the plaza and the wind was blowing and the cards were flying. It was a disaster," Gifford said through both tears and laughter. "We started to trust and then we started to do life together. We started going to lunch every Wednesday and then going to Broadway matinees. And then the next thing you know, you and your mom are at my house for Thanksgiving. And then you're at my place when we had one in Nantucket and doing vacations. You start sharing life and your friendship shows up on the air. We weren't colleagues very long. We became friends. And now we're gonna be friends for the rest of our lives."
"I'm grateful to God for you. Grateful to God for you. God chose you in my life every bit that he chose me in yours, sweetie," Gifford added. "That's the way it goes. No crumbs on his table."
For her final note, Gifford turned her thanks to her fans and even thought ahead to who may replace her.
"Thank you again, everybody, for supporting us and loving us," she said. "And I know somebody wonderful will be sitting in this seat afterward. I have my idea about who might be absolutely wonderful, but there's a great pool of talent and beauty [and] heart right around here, right within our own family. And if they come from outside the family, they will soon become family because you all treat everybody that way."
After Gifford broke the news to viewers, Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News, released a statement.
"As Kathie Lee told me today: 'In 2008, I joined the Today show family intending to spend one year. But something unexpected happened along the way: I fell in love with a beautiful, talented, extraordinary Egyptian goddess named Hoda, and an amazing group of individuals who work tirelessly and joyfully at their jobs, many of them starting at midnight, creating an unprecedented four hours of live television. I stayed year after year making a million memories with people I will never forget. I leave Today with a grateful heart but I'm truly excited for this new creative season in my life. Many thanks to all the wonderful people who made the years fly by,'" he said in part, quoting Gifford.
"Kathie Lee is generously staying with us through the show’s next anniversary, April 7, 2019," Oppenheim's statement continued. "We will have much more to share before then about our plans for that hour, which will, of course, continue to include Hoda."