There once was a columnist in this town who knew everyone worth knowing, the President, the generals, the diplomats, the Cabinet officers, the key bureaucrats, the social lions. He was stuffed with important information. There was only one problem: all that pithy inside knowledge never appeared in his column. "He forgot what he was here for," Eric Sevareid says. "That can be a danger."

In Washington some 4,000 members of the press are officially accredited to cover the government. Their ranks are growing, along with their reach; they are suppling news for greater and greater audiences. Collectively they comprise the best educated, best paid, most powerful press corps in history. A grandoise statement, but nonetheless true.

"We've been awfully privileged people in our business." Sevareid was saying. "To have been an American journalist in this generation is the luckiest thing that could happen to anybody. You're taken seriously, you're well paid, you sit above the salt. That isn't true in many countries. Why, Washington now, there's never been a news center like it since ancient Rome. It's fabulous. And now it's beginning to be kind of a glamour center. Isn't that interesting?

"New York looks tackier all the time. It's still New York, of course, marvelous in many ways. But the old Park Avenue-Long Island society is gone! The old Cafe Society around the Stork Club and 21 is gone. Hollywood is full of do-gooders and deep thinkers: the old, crazy, careless, wonderful life there is gone. So it's power and politics in Washington now. I think that's what has happened. Gossipy journalism zeroes in on it. Television focuses on the personalities. The media writes about the media. Why, look, you're out here interviewing me."

He laughed, got up, and put another log on the fire.

The point of this is that after 45 years of meeting deadlines, Eric Sevareid is easing out of the daily pressure cooker later this month. In that time he has seen and done as much as anyone in American journalism - newspaperman, book author, magazine writer, war correspondent, radio commentator, columnist and, for the last generation, CBS' voice of reason on television. He's done it all - all, that is, except this: he's never forgotten what he was here for; never failed to remember his role.

Not so long ago, when Washington was a much stuffier place, we had oracles in town, olympian figures who issued not mere judgments. They uttered pronouncements: Lippmann says, Krock says, Alsop says . . . The few powerful press figures remaining from that period - among them Reston and Childs in the newspapers, Brinkley in television - never struck so lofty a stance.So if we lack that sense of overpowering, authoritarian personalities, Sevareid is one who sees a good reason for their passage.

"The best brains know there are no simple answers anymore," he says. "There were simple answers to Hilter, and to the Depression and the suffering of people, and to McCarthyism. That's one reason Ed Murrow was so great. These were great, simple moral issues. What would Ed say about the Middle East today? He loved Israel, and the whole idea of Israel, but I don't think he could have had the same black-and-white approach, Welfare. How do we do this, how can we be compassionate and still not bankrupt ourselves?

"Wherever you turn, these things are of such complexity that anybody who pretends there are simple answers is either a lot smarter than I am or a knave."

The same kinds of questions are present about the press. Everyone knows, or believes, that the power of the press increases mightily; that the press forms almost an unchecked and expanding private empire; that the press makes and breaks reputations; that it creates the climate for presidents to be elected, and destroyed; that it's sensational, superficial, cynical, carping, excessively critical biased, ideologist; that it doesn't represent true American values; that TV particulary, distorts reality, intrudes on our private lives, foments discord, influences our thoughts, tailors our perceptions. Out of control, clearly. A menace to liberty and democracy.

Sevareid's had more than his share of such accusations, and has worried about some of their implications. During the McCarthy period his phone would ring in the night bringing threats and abuse. The same things happened during the Nixon-Agnew traumas. And he's not without his own criticisms of the new business. They just don't fall into the current clickes about the press.

"I get to brooding about these things," he says. "I read so many studies about bias and inaccuracies in the press and broadcasting. But you never read any studies about biased listeners, and there's an awful lot of them. My mail shows that all the time. People don't listen carefully. They compliment you or criticize you for saying something you never said at all. Nobody ever looks into that side.

"The great fault of the press is not bias. It's haste. I don't know how you avoid it. I suggested once we should broadcast news only every other day: no broadcasts or newspapers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Think what a good job we could do then.And think how everybody's nerve ends would be rested. The wonder is we're as good as we are."

But the public echo keeps coming back: who elected you? who granted you such power? who watches the watchman?

"If people like me were literally elected," Sevreid responds, "it would mean only a majority would hear what they wanted - and that isn't the idea of a free press. In one sense, we're elected every day - or thrown out: tune me in or tune me out, read or pass over you. I don't know what the power of the press really is. I read the phrase all the time, but I don't know how you measure it. The press doesn't have any power to arrest anybody or tax anybody or declare war. I've always thought the government was growing in power. How do you measure influence? I haven't the faintest idea. Could you trace the effect of something you write? Once in a while, maybe, but not often.

Emerson once said: "Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on the planet." That's hifalutin, and such a comparison certainly would embarrass Eric Sevareid. He's a writer, who happens to have been working in television. Like a good writer, he covers a wide range, and isn't predictable:

On TV news, its "general jazzing up," present concern with "pace" and premium on personalities: "If we had an hour, believe me we could do a lot of things. We could have commentators of different persuasions and we'd have room for rebuttal. That is the big fault: people can't talk back to that box . . ."

On the impact of TV generally: "Television was supposed to stop reading. The hell it has. The academic/intellectuals have been wrong about this from the very beginning. Book sales per capita, even children's books are a little above what they were when TV began. I have never seen any evidence for these claims that we're all turning into zombies, staring hour after hour at the box . . ."

On his own work: "I thought I wrote much better in the radio days when I had 3 or 4 minutes instead of the present, say, 2 1/4 minutes. Three or four minutes is not a bad easay length; you've got time for a little grace, for more evidence, for the beginning and the end, I published a lot of those essays then. I wouldn't publish any of these . . ."

On Jimmy Carter: "Carter seems to feel that, somewhere in all these matters, including how you get Congress to work, there lies an answer. All you have to do is peel those layers off and find it. Presidents have to create those answers pretty much for themselves. It's not done by computers or blueprints. It's not a business, the presidency. It's an art. I hope he doesn't have his heart broken . . ."

On the lack of eloquence in public life: "Great utterances are supposed to be corny now, but I'm enough of a romantic sentimentalist about the country and its history that I do kind of hanker for somebody to lift me up a little. Somebody had a good line. Maybe it was Adlai: 'Our Victorian ancestors were embarrassed in the presence of the base. We are embarrassed in the presence of the noble.'"

All you can hop for is a decent batting average, Sevareid says. If it's pretty good, if you get it right at least half the time, if you end it all with a sense of doing it honorably . . . He pauses, shrugs, and adds, "Well, we're not measurable. We just float along."

There are those who say Eric Sevareid takes himself too seriously. But in that self-appraisal, just recounted. Sevareid clearly was suffering from something else. He was being excessively modest.