Rockwell began his journalistic career at the Oakland Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. In 1972 he began writing at the New York Times, first as a classical music critic and reporter, then as the paper's chief pop music critic, and, from 1992 to 1994, as the European cultural correspondent. Between 1994 to 1998, he served as the first director of the Lincoln Center Festival. He returned to the New York Times to become the editor of the paper's Sunday Arts and Leisure section. In 2004 he was named the chief dance critic. He left the Times at the end of 2006 to pursue independent projects.