In the last panicky weeks of Walter Cronkite's reign as the national anchor in the kingdom of American Television, there arose a peculiar public groundswell. It almost got to the plebiscite stage. People everywhere were saying they wanted plump and rumpled Charles Kuralt to succeed to the throne instead of crisp, brittle Dan Rather.

Kuralt, it was said, was more like Cronkite than Rather was. He was friendly. He was neighborly. He was real. He was -- oh, the magic word -- anuncular .

"I'm fat and bald, undeniably, but I don't think of myself as avuncular," says Charles Kuralt, 46, smiling and blushing. "I think it's just the way I look and appear. It's too bad. I'd rather look like Rather. Of course! Wouldn't anybody?"

If Rather is white bread, Kuralt is a cozy loaf of pumpernickel, and viewers love him. They think that nobody could look like him and be on television and not have gotten there on his brains.

In that sense, Kuralt is a member of an expiring race, the old-time journalist who came to television from print and who still takes pride and pleasure in adroit turns of phrases and scrupulously well chosen words. The future will belong to the clones and the electrons, the TV-bred whiz kids and the eyeball massage provided by gizmos and gadgets; Edward R. Murrow will be but a face on a plaque on a wall, and the Roone Arledges of the world will run riot.

Charles Kuralt is the corner drugstore holding out against the big chains and the shopping malls.

Fortunately there is a place for him to thrive, the old-boy network called CBS, and within that empire, the Tiffany's of Tiffany's, "Morning," especially the weekend edition, "Sunday Morning," where Kuralt and senior executive producer Robert "Shad" Northshield and a brilliant staff of producers and writers try to keep the word as well as the picture alive on television.

Kuralt, who endeared himself to viewers with his traveling "On the Road" features for the "CBS Evening News," is now ensconced as host of the show for six days a week, having formerly presided only over Sunday's version. It wasn't lost on the Black Rock Brass that viewers found Kuralt subbed for Uncle Walter one week last summer and the We-Want-Charlie bandwagon started rolling.

But Kuralt says CBS News never considered him for the Cronkite chair and neither did he.

"No. I can't say that I never did. I was pleased that people liked the job I did of course, but now it's begun to be a sort of source of irritation because it must make Rather feel terrible to read in the paper every other day that Kuralt is waiting in the wings.I did just stop by his office one day and say, 'You know that I have never done anything to inspire any of this crap.' And he knows it is without substance, which must doubly irritate him.

"It is hard to follow Cronkite, clearly," Kuralt says, "but I think that program is already all Rather's, things change so quickly. I don't mean to say that people are going to forget Walter Cronkite. He was splendid for all those years. But I think Dan Rather has made that program his own. Unfortunately it comes on after my bedtime so I don't often see it."

Kuralt goes to bed about 6 p.m. so he can get up at about 2 a.m. for each morning's "broadcast," as people at CBS News insist on calling a television program they do. "The only problem" he has doing the show, Kuralt says, "is the physical one of trying to go to sleep at 6 o'clock, and it's a dull subject to anybody except the person who's trying to do it."

Charles Kuralt smokes too much. He eats too much. He breathes noisily and seemingly with difficult during an interview in Northshield's office. However, he says he does not drink too much; "You can't possibly drink and work this schedule. When would you ever have a drink?" The subject has come up because Kuralt was charged with drunk driving in San Mateo County, Calif., a few months ago.

"I was not guilty of drunk driving and I have every reason to hope I'll be found not quilty," says Kuralt of the case, which comes up for disposition this week. "I was in a rental car; I'd been to dinner with my parents who were visiting my sister out there, I was on my way back to the hotel when this happened. Thank God there wasn't a blond in the car.

"But I hope that justice does triumph in this case. I would just as soon let it all die. It's so embarrassing. The most embarrassing thing of course is having to call your mother and say, 'I'm arrested.'"

Charles Kuralt, CBS News, on the road again . . .

For years CBS wanted to expand its morning news program to make it competitives with NBC's long dominant "Today" show and ABC's slick and popular "Good Morning, America." But a national landmark stood in the way: Captain Kangaroo, the eminent kiddie show host whose program had been a fixture for 25 years. Finally, last month, it was announced that the kiddie show would be shortened by half an hour and "Morning" lengthened to 90 minutes.

CBS executives had finally done it. They'd made Captain Kangaroo an offer he couldn't refuse.

The offices for the "Morning" show on West 57th Street in New York are, ironically, on the same floor as the "Captain Kangaroo" offices. Seeing the name "Captain Kangaroo" on the wall as he and Kuralt enter their side of the floor, Northshield stages a mock tantrum, waving his fist and shouting playful obscenities: "Captain Kangaroo, you [blankety blank blank] son of a bitch!" he roars.

"I've never spoken to him in my life," says Kuralt of the Captain. He claims not to know the details of the top-secret deal Kangaroo (actually Robert Keeshan) cut with the generals of CBS. "Our long-standing wish for more air time is well known to the bosses at Black Rock and they made the decision so they may have negotiated with the Captain," he says. "I guess they did. I don't move in those circles."

But with the Captain safely out of the way and "Morning" set to go into higher gear in the fall, it seems obvious the program will have to forsake some of its genteel dignity and get down there in the big grubby with NBC and ABC, who are slugging it out in no uncertain or very delicate terms. Will Northshield and Kuralt schlock it up in their higher profile?

Northshield, likably bombastic, is definite on this point.

"No! Certainly not!" he barks. "The only reason for expanding us is because we have already, at least in the minds of the guys who decide this, proved that we can do the kind of show that they want us to. You're just not going to see Rita Jenrette on this show. And I'm not certain that you get a higher rating with that dreck. I think 'Good Morning America' got a high rating because David Hartman is popular. I think that's the main factor. I think with "Today,' a very very big thing is that Willard Scott's popular. I don't think that's a high point in American journalism.

"We are not going to match Rona Barrett, and nobody in this place will ask us to I am certain. We are not going to tacky it up."

Kuralt, who has the habit of applying the phrase "I haven't thought about all that stuff" to a variety of topics, has thought about all this stuff. He says if network brass wants "Morning" tawdried and teased, then, "I wouldn't do such a program. That might not break their hearts. But, just in passing, I wouldn't do that."

He's the type to mean it when he says it. You know, the old-fashioned sort, the word-of-honor type, the pride-in-workmanship approach. If Charles Kuralt hadn't existed, Frank Capra would have had to invent him.

Now ABC News is taking about starting its own Sunday morning news show to compete with, naturally, "Sunday Morning." But it's doubtful they'll have people the caliber of Ray Gandolf or Ed Rabel or Heywood Hale Broun or Charles Kuralt on there. They'll be too busy splitting up the screen 45 different ways and telling viewers what's "Still Ahead" (they're junk futurists) and deploying what Northshield calls "all that wham-bang stuff."

"That bothers me," says Kuralt. "We don't do it. We may be the only news program on earth that doesn't have a rear screen -- you know, whatever they call that -- we don't use any of the gimmicks of television at all. I think the faces of the people on the air telling you the news is enough. I don't believe in all those gimmicks and stuff.

"There's something to be said for plainness, too. When I was doing those 'On the Road' stories, I said, 'Don't do fancy pans and change focus and all that stuff, don't let the technology get between the viewer and this person we're trying to tell him about."

"Morning" has developed a few clinches of its own, but Northshield religiously avoids the dominant cliches of TV news. He hates freeze frames (freezing motion into a still photograph), for instance, which are over used to death on the other networks. In fact, recalls Kuralt, one morning he was doing a piece on the photograph of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, and the script needed more tape of the photo than was on hand, so he asked the engineer to just freeze it for a few more seconds. The engineer said, "No, Shad says we can't do a freeze frame."

And Kuralt said, "'It's a still photograph, you idiot!' That's the kind of thinking you do at that hour of the morning. It shows how fuzzy your thinking gets sometimes at 4 a.m."

One change is almost certain to be made in the cast of "Morning": the addition of a prettier face than Kuralt's as Washington anchor for the show, probably the very capable Diane Sawyer, who's seen frequently on the program now. Kuralt hopes that a heightened Washington presence will, among other things, help boost the Washington ratings for the show, which he grumps are "infinitesimal." ABC wins in Washington, followed by NBC. Nationally, it teeters back and forth, with CBS always last.

However, says Kuralt, "Nobody here has ever brought up the subject of ratings," national or regional, and he knows, of no pressure to boost them as the show expands its air time. "I don't think they ever expect us to equal the ratings to the 'Today' show or 'Good Morning, America.' I don't think they ever have expected it. They'd love it, no doubt, but the subject has never come up.Nobody has ever said, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if the ratings went up?'"

"I can't believe they would reject them if they got high," Northshield says.

"I've always heard," says Kuralt, "and I have no evidence of this, but I've always heard that Mr. Paley watches it. And that's all the demographics we need."

"That's known as The Big D," Northshield says.

Northshield is asked to describe Charles Kuralt's temperament. "He's sneaky-sweet," Northsheild says.

"I think we've had three arguments since we started in January of '79. I yell, he kinda talks backs, but mostly he just says, 'You're wrong." Once we had a little argument, it lasted about an hour, and then many months later I referred to something and he said, 'That's when you were mad at me.' According to him, I was 'mad' at him for a year and a half! Guilt is my hobby and he wanted to keep me happy. That bastard!"

Kuralt, Northshield says, is "so electic. So interested in so many things. And he ahs the single great quality: He is truly compassionate. He really cares about everybody."

In front of Kuralt, Northshield refers to him as "a big popular star." Kuralt is asked how he feels when he hears that.

"Oh, I know he's kidding," says Kuralt.

"The hell I am!" says Northshield. "If I am I'm gonna starve."

"I still don't think of myself quite as an anchor man," says Kuralt, who got his first job at CBS News, as a writer, in 1957. He served later as a correspondent from Rio, Los Angeles, and the North Pole before he went "On the Road" from 1967 to 1980. Cronkite himself saluted a fond farewell when Kuralt left the "Evening News" to take over full-week anchor-age of the "Morning" show.

"I enjoy sitting before the camera least of all the things I do," says Kuralt with convincing modesty. "I started out as a writer on 'Douglas Edwards and the News.' And on the good days, it's the same feeling I got then: 'Boy, we really did a good one.' And the fact that Doug was reading what I wrote and not me didn't lessen that."

At another network, a news producer scoffs at Kuralt's florid, sometimes grandiose, sometimes pseudo-literary style. He imagines how Kuralt would report that end of the world: "Homer once said, if a missle hits you, you die, and the missiles are on their way now . . ."

But even if he does get carried away, he is a stylist in an age that increasingly belongs to the fast-food franchisers. And he is a gentleman. And he appears to be a nice guy. When National Public Radio's Susan Stamberg asked him to write a forward to her forthcoming book, Kuralt wrote back, "I'll try to do a good job, and I'll get in on time."

"Sunday Morning," the most deservedly prestigious news program in all of network television, would certainly not be the same without him.

"It's like putting out the college paper, in a way," he says. "You can do whatever things your imagination lets you do." Northshield says, "I'm very proud of it. It's not like finding the cure for cancer. Pioneering, revolutionary, it isn't. It's a good show and that's allit is."

And back to the issue of avuncularity, Kuralt says he doesn't think that was Cronkite's secret, anyway. "I think it was just doing a good job for a long time that made him so popular. I sort of feel that way about the others -- about Chancellor, and I think Rather's a worthy successor. It's the old journalism as opposed to the new. Both Cronkite and Rather are worthy old journalists. I'm sort of -- I believe in all those things myself."

He scowls a little and takes another puff on another cigarette. "Oh I don't know," says Charles Kuralt impatiently. "I haven't thought about all this stuff."