Allen H. Neuharth, 62, yesterday stepped down as chief executive officer of Gannett Co. Inc., handing the firm's reins to John J. Curley, 47.

In a surprise announcement at the end of the annual shareholder's meeting in Washington, Neuharth told stockholders, in what was described as a trembling voice, that it was a "timely and wise move."

"I'm not going away. I love this company," he said. Neuharth will retain the title of chairman.

Later, at a press conference, Curley told reporters that the move was "an evolutionary thing" allowing the transition from Neuharth's leadership of the company for the past 13 years to the takeover by Curley.

Under Neuharth's strong personal control, the company grew from 53 newspapers to 93. Annual revenue increased from $288 million to almost $3 billion and circulation increased to 6 million with the purchase agreement announced Monday for the Louisville newspapers.

Pointing out that The Associated Press reported Gannett is "on a roll," Neuharth said, "That's a good time to step aside."

Curley, a quieter, less flamboyant man than Neuharth, started in journalism as a reporter and editor with the AP in New York. He joined Gannett in 1969 as suburban editor of the Times-Union in Rochester, N.Y. He was publisher of Gannett's Bridgewater (N.J.) Courier News, then became chief of Gannett's Washington bureau in 1974. After a series of top management jobs in the company, including a stint as editor of USA Today, he was appointed president and chief operating officer of Gannett in March 1984.

Asked why he chose Curley as his successor, Neuharth said: "He's a reporter who knows how to pay the rent."

Neuharth said that he now will begin to devote more of his time to long-term planning for Gannett. He said he will also serve as "a reporter-at-large and ambassador-at-large."

Neuharth in the last 18 months has won three major newspaper bidding wars. Besides Louisville, Gannett also purchased The Des Moines Register and The Detroit News.

Asked at the press conference whether he believes that, with these purchases, Gannett "would be getting respect" from critics and others in journalism, Neuharth said, "Since I have been at Gannett, I have been much more interested in the respect of our readers and viewers than I have of some reporters and critics."

In New York, Standard & Poor's Corp. said it has placed Gannett Co.'s double-A rated senior long-term debt on its credit-watch surveillance list with negative implications.

S&P said that about $300 million is outstanding, but added that the company's A1-rated commercial paper is not placed on a credit watch at this time.

S&P said the action reflects the increased debt load expected with Gannett's purchase of the two Louisville papers for what Neuharth said yesterday was between $300 million and $305 million. Sources close to the transaction said that the Bingham family, which owned the papers, will receive $315 million from the sale, including proceeds from a smaller property purchased by another buyer.