If a novelist were sketching characters for a cold-war spy story, his American intelligence-gathering operative would have a background much like that of Anthony C. Stout.

Stout grew up in the 1950s, when spying was a respectable profession for the right kind of young man, and would have been right at home among the prep-schoolers and Ivy Leaguers who followed their fathers and big brothers of the Office of Strategic Services into an exciting and exclusive international club.

Stout, unlike many of his contemporaries who went from campus to cloak and dagger, waited 20 years after graduating from college to plunge into the world of international information-peddling. And even now he is staying outside the government, running his own computerized network of agents under the James Bond-style anagram IRIS, or International Reporting and Information Systems.

Appropriately, he was traveling in Europe yesterday and could not be reached for comment on reports that he and partners from Britain and Holland--including former British prime minister Edward Heath--had formed IRIS and will operate it out of Crystal City. Colleagues and business associates from National Journal, which Stout owns, said he has spent much of the past year in Europe putting together his new operation.

Stout, one of the founders of National Journal in 1969, was born in New York in 1939. He went to St. Paul's school and Williams College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in the class of 1961. Then he went to Harvard Law School, and spent a year at the London School of Economics.

He practiced law at the prominent New York firm of Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy--the McCloy being the veteran cold warrior and arms-control negotiator John J. McCloy. In 1969, at the age of 30, he and a partner, investment specialist F. Randall Smith, came to Washington and established Government Research Corp., which publishes National Journal.

The weekly magazine has developed an admiring readerships and is respected for its dispassionate analyses of difficult issues, but Stout himself spends little time in its newsroom. Colleagues say he concentrates more on the corporation's other activities, economic conferences and international consulting, which evidently have prepared him for his new venture.

The concept of information as a commodity has been with Stout since Government Research was founded. "We knew from personal experience that brokerage and law firms have great difficulty evaluating the factors affecting the actions of the executive and congressional branches of government. Nor is the problem common only to Wall Street," he said at the time.

Stout has survived several well-publicized power struggles to retain control of the corporation and of the magazine, which insiders say began to show a profit about two years ago. He bought out Smith several years ago.

Stout, a gregarious, cigar-smoking man about town, lives in Georgetown with his wife, Muffy, and their four children.