The cake was glazed with "Meet the Press" logos, and monitors around the room replayed highlights from network television's longest-running show, but the heavyweight newsmakers gathered last night to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Meet the Press" were determined to do no such thing.

"I'm sworn to secrecy, and they're recording everything I say through this," said Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), pointing to his watch as he evaded questions about yesterday's White House-congressional discussion of the budget. "At these meetings you can't even breathe too loud."

"We've had only our first meeting this afternoon at 3," said Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.). "We talked about how to escape the press, the back door -- housekeeping things. We worked all that out. Now we've just got to solve the budget problem."

"I'm off duty," said Secretary of State George Shultz any number of times, sliding away with a smile when asked about the possibilities of a U.S.-Soviet summit and the upcoming visit of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

Almost everyone may have been officially off duty, but like all such events, the buffet at the National Building Museum was hardly a casual get-together. In the press-heavy crowd, reporters got an opportunity to schmooze with politicians they have been known to grill on "Meet the Press" and elsewhere, and NBC got an opportunity to call attention to itself.

What with the show's logo on the cake, the walls and the stage, and the towering, revolving "N" in the center of the hall, the identity of the evening's host could not easily be ignored. "Meet the Press" is no longer at the top of the talk-show ratings race, and many observers feel its rivals have overtaken it. At such times, a chance to celebrate and reminisce, or at least to lure a reporter from "Entertainment Tonight" to cover the party, is always welcome.

Even Shultz was persuaded to smile into the "Entertainment Tonight" camera and tell the American public that only Hubert Humphrey appeared on the "Meet the Press" more times than he has. Beyond that, he had little to say, although he did tease Barbara Cohen, the show's executive producer, with the comment that he had previewed on the show "news that's going to be announced tomorrow." But no more. Cohen was left without details, as was a persistent reporter who pleaded, "But I'm with Voice of America!"

Dole's name tag included the label "16 times," which the presidential candidate insisted referred to "my voting record -- the number of times I've voted wrong."

From the stage came words of praise for the show and staff from NBC executives and reporters.

"I think it's fair to say that 40 years ago Larry Spivak invented the wheel ... Everyone has been trying to catch up with it ever since," current "Meet the Press" host Chris Wallace told the crowd of several hundred.

Lawrence Spivak, who created the show and served as moderator and permanent panelist until 1975, assured those listening that "If there is an afterlife, I plan to start all over again as a panel member." But when it came time later to talk more specifically about the changes in the show and medium he entered all those years ago, he was a bit harsher.

"When we started, we had just one guest on for the 30 minutes," he said. Now "Meet the Press" follows the more popular pattern of other talk shows, including several guests and a variety of segments.

"Our general feeling was if the guest wasn't worth that amount of time, he wasn't worth anything at all," Spivak said. "I think one problem with television is that people think everything can be done in one minute, two minutes or three minutes -- I don't think it can."

Even those still embroiled in the daily work of the network had to admit there have been problems of late. News President Larry Grossman said "we're looking into" the ratings issue, and yes, he had a little talk with White House correspondents Chris Wallace and Andrea Mitchell following recent verbal and physical shoving matches among reporters from competing networks.

"Everyone agreed it's something we should not continue," he said. "It wasn't that they weren't doing their jobs, but it was beginning to backfire, so Chris and Andrea have, of their own volition, been holding back."

But enough of such things. There were cameras to look into and four symbolic candles on a cake to blow out. And when Spivak leaned over and blew out the candles before all the many photographers were ready, there was an instant replay to stage so not a single camera would miss that perfect, happy picture.

Special correspondent Jacquelyn Powell contributed to this article.