Another publication took its place this week on the chrome and glass coffee table in the waiting room on the 34th floor of Time Inc.'s mid-Manhattan headquarters. Amid the glossy covers of "Time," "Fortune," "Sports Illustrated," "People" and "Money" displayed on the table was a plain black-and-white copy of "The Washington Star."

Acquisition of The Star company, announced in Washington yesterday, represents the fulfillment of a long-time corporate ambition of the New York-based publishing giant to own a major daily American newspaper.

In 1968 Time announced it was purchasing the Newark Evening News. New Jersey's largest daily paper. A month after the announcement, Time insiders say, the deal was dropped after an examination of the News' books disclosed financial problems. The paper eventually folded.

Time, Inc. also considered trying to purchase The Star during that period, the sources say, but it was not possible. Former Star President John H. Kauffmann yesterday recalled that Time, Inc. has shown interest in buying the newspaper off and on for 15 years or more. He said that when he was the paper's president between 1969 and 1972 he was more interested in acquiring the Washington Daily News than in selling to Time.

Eventually, Time bought a string of 17 suburban weekly papers in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago with the idea, according to corporate sources, of turning them into a single suburban daily patterned on the successful high-quality tabloid format of Newday, a Long Island newspaper.

Many difficulties made the idea unprofitable, however, and Time dropped it in favor of simply improving the individual papers and running them at a profit. Time still owns the papers.

While the announcement of the sale came as a surprise in Washington yesterday, Time Editor-in-Chief Hedley Donovan said in New York that negotiations have been going on for a year between Time Inc. President James R. Shepley and Star owner Joe L. Allbritton.

"There was no particular urgency on either side," Donovan said.

Time Inc. has traditionally been careful about planning the magazines it has started and its other business ventures, which include newsprint manufacturing, television and film operations, book publishing, and large-scale production of cable television shows.

Until recently for example, the company had a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] development group that studied in detail the possibilities of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a new magazine called [WORD ILLEGIBLE] project was not satisfactory, according to Donald M. Wilson, vice president for corporate and public affairs, and now the idea is "quiescent."

Now Time Inc. editors in New York, Wilson said, are studying the possibility of again publishing "Life" magazine on a monthly basis. The successful popular weekly photo magazine folded in 1973. Wilson said the editors have been working on the idea for three months but the development of the idea is still "in a very early stage."

This kind of careful planning is fueled by the enormous energies of a corporation that revolutionized and then dominated American journalism and that, even in a time when its image as the leader of the journalistic community has faded, had revenues in excess of $1 billion in 1976, Forbes, a business magazine, wrote recently that with its tremendous profits, "Time's cash holdings are beginning to get embarrassing."

But profitability, many observers said yesterday, can hardly have been Times's prime motive for acquiring the financially troubled Star. Acquiring a presence in the nation's capital was certainly one of the main attractions.

"You get a voice here, that's an important editorial consideration," said Time Inc. Vice President for Government Affairs Barry Zorthian.

David Halberstam, a former New York Times correspondent who is writing a book on the modern media, said that The Star will give Time "a flagship in the nation's capital and a chance to try some rather interesting journalism."

Halberstam said Time has a strong "traditional sense of prestige" and that, "It's hard to imagine them going into the nation's capital with a paper like The Star without wanting to do it and do it well."

Just what contribution Time will make to the Washington paper editorially, or how the paper might be changed, remained unclear yesterday. Allbritton insisted in a press conference that he is happy with the way The Star looks and reads and contemplates making no change at all in its style as he continues as publisher.

"It's going to remain a Washington newspaper," said Allbritton, adding that, "We now have the backing the resources and the commitment of a great news organization."

He suggested that the newspaper, which now has no regular staff correspondents abroad, might make use of Time Magazine's extensive worldwide network of bureaus. Donovan in New York showed considerable interest in a news service that would pool the resources of Time and the Star.

Time spokesman Wilson said that Allbritton "is running the paper and if he wants some of the many talents we have here and asks for them, we'll make them available."

Wilson said he was talking about assistance with "ideas, imagination in areas of promotion or advertising, possibly in editorial . . . Any interpretation of a big move (into Washington) of (Time Inc.) people, money, or that kind of thing is absolutely wrong. That's not going to happen."

The Time Inc. empire began in 1923 when two young men just out of Yale, Britton Haden and Henry Luce, launched, a weekly newsmagazine called Time, Luce had the idea for the title one night, so the story goes, while riding home from work and glimpsing an advertisment titled, "Time to Retire or Time to Change . . ." His other magazines also had catchy, significant one-word titles - except for Sports Illustrated.

Time magazine revolutionized American journalism by capsulizing a week's news so that busy working people could stay abreast of events with an hour's reading - and it seemed to break the old journalistic rule against editorializing in news columns.

The magazines admitted prejudices, wrote Luce and Hadden in their memorable prospectus, would include "a belief that the world is round and an admiration of the stateman's view of the world; a general distrust of the present tendency toward increasing interference by government; a prejudice against the rising cost of government . . . a respect for the old, particularly in manners, an interest in the new, particularly in ideas."

Hadden, the genius behind the lively, almost flip editorial style of the magazine, died a few years after its founding. Luce, the more sober, philosophical of the pair, carried on and created an empire.

"To see life, to see the world, to eye-witness great events . . ." wrote Luce in his 1936 prospectus for the fabulously successful Life magazine.

Recently Time magazine has revamped its own style, giving it a more modern appearance. Last time Time Inc. merged with Book of the Month Club, taking it even deeper into a field where it had success with its own book publishing arm, Time-Life Books.

Time-Life Books, with revenues of $228 million in 1976, moved that year its editorial and business offices from New York City to Alexandria. The move was made, according to announcements at the time, to take advantage of tax benefits and research facilities in the Washington area, and to improve the life styles of employee.