Jim Vance, the longtime anchor of Channel 4's top-rated newscast, has left the air following the expiration of his contract, sources said yesterday.

It's not clear when Vance, who has been with WRC-TV for 31 years, will return to the anchor chair or whether he will remain with the station. He last appeared on News4 on Wednesday.

Vance, 58, was said to be traveling yesterday and did not return messages left at his office over the past two days. His agent, Richard Leibner, also did not return calls. WRC News Director Bob Long declined comment, citing contract negotiations. The station's general manager, Linda Sullivan, did not return calls.

While contract negotiations--and posturing over them--are typical in the TV news business, industry sources pointed to one unusual aspect of Vance's situation. Typically, an anchor, particularly one of Vance's stature and experience, will sign a contract extension to keep him on the air as negotiations over a new deal continue. Vance has not, according to the station.

The situation has taken on some urgency in recent days, say colleagues, with the involvement of executives from WRC and its parent companies, NBC and General Electric Corp. "If he isn't on the air, that's a pretty dramatic statement" of Vance's state of mind, said one of his colleagues. "This is not usual."

Vance recently told colleagues he was tiring of the anchor's job, which he has held at WRC since 1970. He seemed particularly keen on a change of pace after returning from a long vacation last summer in which he drove his motorcycle up the West Coast, one newsroom source said.

WRC spokeswoman Angela Owens said Vance was "taking a few days off" before the start of the February ratings sweeps, a quarterly period during which stations' Nielsen figures are used to set the advertising rates charged sponsors. "Jim hasn't quit," said Owens. "We consider this routine. . . . [The station] expects negotiations to end to everyone's satisfaction." Owens was unable to say when Vance would return to the air.

Vance was part of a WRC ad campaign this summer that touted the 10th anniversary of the News4 team: Vance, co-anchor Doreen Gentzler, weatherman Bob Ryan and sportscaster George Michael. The station continues to promote Vance on the air and on its Web site, labeling him "the best in local news."

Losing the popular Vance would be a huge blow to WRC's efforts to stay atop the local news race. The Vance-Gentzler team has led the ratings at 6 and 11 p.m. for most of the last decade. News leadership is highly important to a station because newscasts typically provide as much as half of a TV station's overall revenue.

A newsroom source pointed out that Vance could increase his negotiating leverage by holding out right before the sweeps, which start on Thursday.

If he were to leave the station, Vance would be the second veteran anchor to leave a local newscast within the past year. Last June, Paul Berry, who'd spent 28 years anchoring the news on WJLA, Channel 7, reached the end of his contract and left the station when terms could not be reached.

There are no indications that Vance is negotiating to join another local station, according to several executives.

Along with Channel 9's Gordon Peterson, Vance is the most experienced anchor on local television. He occasionally anchors major stories from the field, including the political conventions, and has reported features from El Salvador, South Africa and Vietnam.

Some of his most memorable stories were about himself: his passion for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, his childhood in Pennsylvania, his duck-hunting exploits on the Eastern Shore. More than a decade ago, Vance also acknowledged on the air that he was addicted to cocaine, and had recovered.

Vance began his career as a teacher in the Philadelphia public schools and simultaneously worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Independent newspaper and radio station WHAT-AM. His first TV job was as a reporter for WKBS-TV in Philadelphia. He joined WRC in 1969. During his career at WRC, Vance has won 15 local Emmy Awards.

CAPTION: It's uncertain whether Jim Vance will return to his WRC anchor spot.