Decades ago the way to draw big names to a Washington party was to "hang a lamb chop in the window," as hostess Perle Mesta once described the system.

Now the secret may be to offer instead a bronze plaque.

Thus, the Washington Journalism Review set up its "Best in the Business" awards four years ago, and even its founders were surprised at the reaction. Network corporate jets made their way to Washington so that the winning anchor and a covey of executives could accept a prize the way their Hollywood brethren accept the Oscars.

The Washington Journalism Review awards have done a lot to boost a few journalistic egos. They have also done a lot to boost the Washington Journalism Review.

Or as Washington writer Tom McNichol explained in a WJR article two years ago: "For the sponsors, journalism awards serve the dual purpose of honoring the best in the business while generating good PR for their company or institution."

Last night's awards ceremony at the Westin Hotel was a clean sweep for ABC News. Sam Donaldson was named best correspondent, Peter Jennings best anchor and "Nightline," anchored by Ted Koppel, best network TV news program.

All three were there, even though Donaldson and Jennings had to time their visits the way they time their news shows -- down to the microsecond. Jennings did ABC's "World News Tonight" at 6:30 p.m., arrived at the WJR party shortly after 7 and departed with his award about 15 minutes later to deal with President Reagan's press conference.

ABC was also represented by Washington bureau chief George Watson, a number of New York executives and David Brinkley, who anchors "This Week With David Brinkley."

ABC News President Roone Arledge, who was in Calgary with the Olympics, sent a telegram congratulating the ABC winners and adding, "I would also like to be there for the excitement of watching someone accept an award who was not an East German."

The people choosing these "best in the business" are mostly in the business themselves, according to University of Maryland journalism professor Mark Levy, who tallied the ballots.

The magazine, which has been taken over by the University of Maryland journalism school, asks its subscribers to make the selections, and 1,246 of its 30,000 readers sent in their ballots this year. WJR said 40 percent of those who identified their organizations were from the print media and 20 percent from broadcast journalism.

The remainder were split almost evenly among public relations people, educators or students, retired journalists and "media junkies," as WJR put it.

There are some quibbles about calling this a "poll," and purists want to call it a reader survey because in some cases a relatively small number of votes can put someone in the winner's circle.

WJR associate editor Clint O'Connor said that last year the magazine's executives decided to get an official pollster to handle the selections. They hired the Gallup organization, which polled readers more randomly than scientifically.

According to O'Connor, editors were disappointed in the "technical" nature of the results.

"What we didn't like was these statistical ties," he said. "We thought that was very hokey. If Jennings beats {CBS anchor Dan} Rather by four percentage points, statistically that's a tie. We hated it so we went back to the readers' ballots."

This year, as always, winners didn't ask for an accounting of who voted, but some of the losers privately wondered if the ballot box was being stuffed in some artful way.

This year, for example, the readers decided they didn't like viewing Dan Rather. Rather won as top anchor in 1985 and again in 1986 from these same readers. Last year he tied with Jennings. This year he was third of three, winning only in a new category as "least favorite" broadcast journalist. And the voting took place before Rather's contretemps with Vice President Bush.

CBS spokesman Tom Goodman said: "Sixteen million viewers watch Dan Rather every night. CBS News, including its producers, correspondents and anchor, remain the 'best in the business' by most recognized standards."

In an obvious reference to journalists who vote for themselves or their own organizations, Goodman added: "Also we shouldn't have cut down our subscription list for WJR."

"I didn't analyze whether there was block voting or whether people were voting for themselves," Levy said. "It's possible, but I didn't see any blatant evidence of it."

If Donaldson could celebrate the fact that he is the only journalist to win in the best-correspondent category since the contest began, WJR subscribers also gave him second place in the "least favorite broadcast journalist" voting.

"Clearly people seem to be polarized about what they think about me," said Donaldson, who is becoming increasingly irritated that his decibel level and his pranks always seem to get more attention than his journalism. Levy also wrote that in winning the award this year, "Donaldson outran (and outshouted) the rest of the field ..."

"I am the only one about whom they feel the need to put in a descriptive phrase," said Donaldson yesterday afternoon. "The people at WJR are going to call me the best in the business, but they've got to add a dig by throwing in a gratuitous phrase like that. Well, thanks a lot."

Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor of The Washington Post for investigative reporting, was chosen top newspaper reporter. Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune was named best columnist for the third time. Royko couldn't be there because he writes five columns a week and refuses to fly.

The winner for best magazine writer was Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated, who has also written four novels, two biographies, two "popular histories" and a screenplay.

The New York Times was chosen best daily newspaper; Newsweek was picked the best news magazine.

Charles Osgood of CBS won for best network radio journalist, and National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" won for the best network radio show for the second straight year.

Among the losers was columnist George Will, who was voted "least favorite" journalist -- a title he won with only 12 percent of the vote. He was followed closely by two other conservative columnists, Robert Novak and William F. Buckley.

Syndicated columnist Calvin Trillin, who made introductory and closing remarks at the event, recalled that when he was with Time magazine in the South he and his colleagues also gave themselves awards for their journalistic expertise.

One weekly award, he said, went to "whoever that week had most smoothly quoted himself. A lot of those started with 'As the crowd broke up, a shabby-looking bystander was heard to say ...' "