The expected appointment of Mark W. Cannon, the administrative assistant to Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, to head a foundation destined to be one of the nation's richest appeared to be in trouble yesterday.

A resolution calling for Cannon to be named president and elected to the board of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation was drafted and distributed to directors in advance of a board meeting in Chicago last Friday.

Board approval had seemed certain.However, shortly after the session, director William T. Kirby and Cannon, in a telephone interview, said Paul D. d/oolen, the foundation's interim president, had reported that he and Cannon hadn't completed negotiations, that the matter consequently wasn't discussed at the meeting, and that the resolution had been put off until Jan. 3.

But a differing account came yesterday from J. Roderick MacArthur, another member of the board.

MacArthur, the only son of John MacArthur, who was one of the country's two reputed billionaires when he died last January, said in a phone interview the nomination was "withdrawn from the agenda" and "no further consideration is scheduled."

Does this put the search for a president back "to square one?" a reporter asked MacArthur, who alone among the directors has been wary about turning over the foundation to Cannon.

"From my viewpoint, it does," MacArthur said. "I have always said that we must not choose a president until we have defined our program and the character of our foundation."

Doolen, endorsing the Kirby-Cannon version of the Friday meeting, said he told the board he wasn't "prepared to make a report." Asked about MacArthur's account, he said he was not saying it was incorrect. "We're trying to work the matter out," he added.

Neither Kirby nor Cannon could be reached for comment.

MacArthur gave no direct reply when he was asked why a hitch had developed in naming Cannon, who was the only candidate to head the foundation.

Instead, noting that Kirby had retained a court reporter to make a stenographic record of the meeting, he said only: "Kirby insisted on the utmost secrecy for this meeting, even to the point of denying to the other directors a copy of a transcript, keeping it only to himself."

MacArthur said he was the only director at the meeting who "objected strenuously to this secrecy."

Under John MacArthur's will, Bankers Life & Casualty Co. and the 12 related companies in his insurance empire will become his foundation's single asset in a few months

Roderick MacArthur estimates that appraisers will fix the asset's worth at about $750 million. If the estimate is accurate, the tax laws will require an annual pay-out for charitable purposes of at least $37.5 million.

Cannon, 50, earns $54,500 at the Supreme Court. Major foundations pay their presidents up to $125,000, he noted in a lengthy report he prepared -- on his own time, without fee -- to guide the directors as to how foundation money should be spent.