Charlie Gibson, "World  News" anchor and one of TV news' best-known figures for over 30 years, will step down as anchor of the broadcast by the end of the year.

   Diane Sawyer will become his replacement, thus planting another milestone in network TV news history, when two female anchors will go head- to-head. 

  Gibson announced his departure Wednesday morning via an e-mail to the staff, which read, in part: "I have always been taught you should never bury the lead -- so I write to tell you that I have told David Westin I want to step down as anchor of World News, and retire from full time employment at ABC News. It has not been an easy decision to make. This has been my professional home for almost 35 years. And I love this news department, and all who work in it, to the depths of my soul."

  Gibson added that he wanted to remain "in some capacity" at the news division, noting "we will be discussing what that role might be."

  In an accompanying e-mail to the staff, ABC News president David Westin, said, "Charlie and I have been talking about his decision for several weeks, and he has persuaded me that this is both what he wants and what is best for him.  I respect his decision, just as I respect the enormous contribution he has made to ABC News through the years."

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  He added, "Diane Sawyer is the right person to succeed Charlie and build on what he has accomplished. She has an outstanding and varied career in television journalism, beginning with her role as a State Department correspondent and continuing at '60 Minutes,' 'Primetime Live,' and 'Good Morning America.' "

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  An assistant in Gibson's office said he was not taking calls.  


  Gibson, 66, began anchoring the program -- for many years under Peter Jennings, network TV's preeminent evening newscast -- in May of 2006. He replaced Bob Woodruff, who had been seriously injured in Iraq that January, and immediately stabilzed the broadcast's ratings which had been wavering under the brief Woodruff/Elizabeth Vargas. Per some reports, Gibson had been first choice to replace Jennings after the veteran "World News Tonight" anchorman's death from lung cancer in August of 2005. Sawyer had also sought the job which ultimately went to Vargas and Woodruff. 

  Today's announcement was a huge surprise, if only for the simple reason that Gibson has been such a popular figure at ABC News for so long. He's also one of the few remaining senior correspondents from an era when ABC News was truly dominant, while his two separate stints at "Good Morning America" -- covering most of the '90s and the first six years of this century -- were among the best in the program's history. Meanwhile, "World News" -- though without the ratings dominance of the Jennings era -- is still a top-rated broadcast, though has trailed "Nightly News" this summer by about a million viewers, which is a sizable margin in TV news terms.

-Click here to see photos of Diane Sawyer through the years

Reasons for Gibson's departure were unclear, though this one's especially noteworthy given the brevity of his tenure. The Big Three anchors, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, held their chairs for almost a quarter century, which lent their respective news divisions stability during an era of relentless and destabalizing change in TV news. By contrast, Gibson's brief era has been relatively placid. He and Sawyer were at "GMA" in 2001 to cover one of the biggest stories in broadcast news history - Nine Eleven - while the huge stories of his three years were the war in Iraq, the election of the nation's first black president, and the Wall Street crash and recession. 

  Besides pedigree and background, though, Gibson has seemed to share little of the style of his three major predecessors - or his direct competitors, for that matter. In demeanor, he's steady and calm - almost the textbook anchorman who seems to fill the screen with a sense of poise and balance. But unlike Rather/Brokaw/Jennings, he also seems to have little interest in charging into the midst of stories, leaving that work to correspondents instead. 

  And how much charging of any sort Gibson wanted to do during his next contract is probably the big question now. His current deal ends this year, and - if typical contract cycles are any guide - ABC probaby wanted to seal him to a new three, or even four, year deal. That would have carried him through the next presidential election.
  Meanwhile, the evening news race is about to become re-ordered. CBS probably sees the outcome in its favor, with a head-to-head battle between Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer playing out in its favor. NBC likely assumes "Nightly News" is the easy winner in the three-network race, if only because Brian Williams is indeed about to become TV's senior anchorman. 

  Of even greatest consequence: Who replaces Sawyer on "Good Morning America?"