Jim Vance, one of the most popular, controversial and enduring television anchormen in Washington, was granted a leave of absence yesterday to get treatment at the Betty Ford Center for exhaustion, depression and drug dependence.

Vance, an anchor at WRC, Channel 4, the NBC-owned and -operated station in Washington, released a statement yesterday that read: "I am suffering from exhaustion, depression and a dependency on drugs used to overcome these problems. I will be off the air for some period and I am looking forward to returning to work as soon as my treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic is completed. I sincerely appreciate the support of WRC-TV during this period."

Vance has not been on the air since Dec. 28; part of the time he has been on vacation.

The announcement was treated as a news story on the 5 p.m. Channel 4 news, which Vance has coanchored with Lea Thompson; on the 6 p.m. news, which he had coanchored until last August; and again on the 11 p.m. news, which he has coanchored with Bob McBride.

The station's story said, "Channel 4 management has indicated that Jim has been under considerable pressure in recent months. In order to maintain the high standards of journalism and personal integrity which have marked his 15 years at WRC-TV, Jim has asked for a leave of absence at this time."

The story said Vance is expected back at work in a few weeks.

The Betty Ford Center, located in Rancho Mirage, Calif., is a nonprofit, 60-person treatment facility founded by former first lady Betty Ford for chemical dependency on alcohol and other drugs. It has treated Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore and others.

Fred DeMarco, vice president and general manager of WRC, said in a statement: "I know that I speak for the management and staff of WRC-TV in expressing our total and complete support of Jim's desire and effort to deal with his problems. We all truly admire Jim's courage and openness in disclosing this very personal issue. Jim is one of Washington's outstanding TV journalists and we are looking forward to his recovery and his most welcome return to Channel 4."

Vance's problems with drugs had been widely talked about. Allen Zelon, an associate of agent Richard Leibner, who represents Vance in contract negotiations with WRC, described Vance's condition as "general exhaustion. I really couldn't say what the cause is."

The staff was informed of the leave of absence in a memo, issued by Vance and DeMarco, yesterday afternoon. The anchors were informed individually late yesterday by news director Jim Van Messel.

"People are worried about Jim in a personal sense. There hasn't been a lot of talking because we were getting ready to go on the air," said Susan King, the coanchor on WRC's 6 p.m. newscast.

In recent weeks, said King, Vance had been pushing himself on a project and had been frustrated at its progress.

"He had been going to a school in the District from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., the same classroom every day. He wanted to get into the psyche of the kids, who becomes the leader, who gets left behind. This is the kind of story he really likes. They had finished taping, but hadn't started editing. And just before his vacation, he said, 'I don't know if it is there,' " said King. She described him as "one of the hardest-working anchormen I have ever seen." She said he is a personal journalist and sometimes a moody individual, but one who enjoys debating the issues. She recalled a three-hour conversation with Marvin Bush, a son of the vice president, during the Republican convention. "He is a complex reporter," said King.

Vance, who is 43 today, joined WRC as a general-assignment reporter in 1969 and became a weekend anchor in 1970. In 1972 he was named coanchor of the weekday newscasts. Since then he has survived at least six coanchor shuffles and earned a reputation as a hard-hitting and provocative newsman. In several hostage situations, he was requested as a negotiator.

In a rare departure for a local newsman, Vance has delivered commentaries on the nightly news for the last eight years. He has not been afraid to take on the president, the mayor or Vance's own friends, and his essays frequently have lit up the switchboards.

During the Iranian hostage crisis, Vance challenged President Carter's "Rose Garden" approach and received a reported 6,000 calls supporting Vance's views.

In his 15-year career at WRC, Vance has been singled out for both his community involvement and his professional achievements. He won an Emmy in 1977 for his coverage of the Hanafi Muslim seizure of the B'nai B'rith and District buildings in downtown Washington and one for his commentaries, and was part of the Channel 4 team that won an Emmy for the outstanding local newscast in 1982.

In 1977 Vance was cited by Washingtonian magazine as a Washingtonian of the Year. In August 1983, Vance and McBride were cited by a trade publication, Electronic Media, as one of the three hottest anchor teams in the country.

His off-hours work has included graduation speeches, modeling in charity fashion shows and singing. Last summer he organized the Jim Vance Do Wop Singers to perform at a picnic and relive the street singing of his adolescence.

Vance earns more than $250,000 a year, according to some reports, and his contract is reportedly up next August. In his last negotiations, according to sources, he was given only a minimal increase in salary due to his ongoing health problems.

Vance grew up in Ardmore, Pa., and went to Cheyney State College, where he received a degree in secondary education in 1965. He taught school in Philadelphia before getting his first job in broadcasting at WKBS-TV in Philadelphia in 1967. He also hosted the country's first prime-time black talk show on WCAU-TV in Philadelphia.