The Baltimore News American, whose journalistic ancestors first began publishing in this port city before the Revolutionary War, folded today after its parent, Hearst Corp., announced it could not find a buyer for the financially ailing afternoon daily.

In a two-page statement released today following a meeting with the paper's 500 employes, Hearst said that "the buyer of last resort" had withdrawn from negotiations late last week. Hearst had announced its intention to sell the paper last December, after years of unprofitable operations in the competitive Baltimore market.

"We were unable to find a buyer who met the criteria and, regrettably, we must now take the inevitable next step and suspend publication," said J. Roger Grier, a Hearst vice president.

The demise of the News American, which for a period until the 1970s had the largest circulation among Baltimore's newspapers but whose circulation had plummeted to less than 100,000 this year, leaves the city with only one publishing voice, A. S. Abell Co., publisher of the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun.

Today's announcement came as little surprise to many of the paper's employes, who began leaving the downtown plant this afternoon with bags and boxes full of their belongings.

"Everyone sort of expected it, they just didn't know when it was coming," said Ray Teufel, 56, a 34-year veteran of the News American's composing room.

Though expected, the end still stunned longtime employes, many of whom reveled in putting out the feisty daily in competition with the more staid, and considerably better funded, Sun and Evening Sun.

"It reminds me of when an elderly relative dies," noted William Stump, the editor of the News American's editorial page. "You know they're going to die, but it's still a shock."

The newspaper's delivery truck drivers learned the news at mid-morning after they returned from dropping off the paper's first edition. As they waited near the paper's loading dock to pick up the final edition, whose major story was the paper's own death, some drivers complained that the paper should have given them more warning.

"We should have had a couple of weeks' notice, not one day," said Nick Mathias, a veteran of 16 years with the paper. "It hurts."

Hearst Corp., which has owned the News American since 1923, said that it had contacted more than 50 prospective buyers since last fall, but none had shown "the financial commitment" to continue publication.

Hearst also said it had discussed a joint-operating agreement with the Baltimore Sun, which it said spurned the proposal. Hearst said it will honor severance pay provisions with its employes, give all full-time workers a month's separation pay, and continue medical and life insurance coverage for a period of three months.

The News American, which traced its lineage to the founding of the weekly Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser in 1773, announced its own end in typical fashion today. An eight-paragraph story with no byline appeared beneath a screaming headline that proclaimed: SO LONG, BALTIMORE.

And honoring the best traditions of afternoon papers, reporter Liz Bowie left the employes' meeting today to write the final breaking news story to appear in the News American. The account of former Old Court Savings and Loan president Jeffrey Levitt pleading guilty to embezzlement made the last edition.

The story of the News American's long decline was another in what has become a familiar tale for America's afternoon newspapers in large metropolitan markets. In its heyday, the paper served a lunch-bucket town that thrived on a paper that served them police news and sports in easily digestible bites.

The News American's dominance of the Baltimore market was symbolized in June of 1944, when the paper's ace reporter, Lou Azrael, landed with Allied troops on D-Day and the Baltimore Sun was forced to carry its competitor's dispatch.

But blue-collar Baltimore began changing during the 1960s and 1970s, and the demographics crippled the News American just as it did the Washington Star and other afternoon papers in this country. The paper's working-class readers fled to the suburbs, advertisers and their middle-class clientele increasingly preferred morning papers, and the logistics of printing and delivering an afternoon paper became more difficult.

Perhaps the paper's own plant was the most apt symbol of the changes that doomed the News American. The gritty facility overlooked this city's sparkling Inner Harbor development, which is itself a symbol of what Baltimore is becoming -- more a tourist mecca than a place where the working class lives. It was often said in recent years that the News American was worth more as a parking garage or office complex than as a newspaper.

Although Hearst Corp. refused to say how much the News American had lost in recent years, John Morton, a newspaper analyst with Lynch Jones & Ryan of Washington, said, "In our experience, it is not difficult for a newspaper of that category to lose a half million to a million dollars a month."

The paper's circulation figures showed a steady decline from its 1959 high of 231,000 daily papers. By 1980, the paper was selling only 142,000 papers a day, and the figure fell to 101,000 in 1985.

In its declining years, despite having far less resources than the Sun papers, the News American remained a spirited, if uneven, outlet for the news.

"I had a good time, it was a fun place," said reporter Bowie, who joined the paper seven months ago.

Stump, the editorial page editor, said the paper was at its best in recent months when the outlook was most grim. "We acted as a spur to the Sun and they acted as a spur to us," said Stump. "It's terribly important to have a competitive situation."

When asked to suggest a headline for today's final edition, Stump offered one that could serve as the paper's epitaph: "By God, we tried."