WASHINGTON (AP) — John Palmer, a veteran reporter for NBC News who covered wars and Washington over a career that spanned 40 years, died Saturday after a brief illness at a Washington hospital.

Palmer's wife Nancy confirmed he died at George Washington University Hospital of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 77.

The gentlemanly Palmer worked for NBC from 1962 to 1990, and then returned to the network from 1994 until 2002.

"John was a brilliant, brave, and tireless journalist who guided viewers through many of the most significant events of the past half-century - from the early days of the civil rights movement through the tragedy of 9/11," NBC News said in a statement. "He covered five presidents and traveled to every corner of the world, always showing the empathy and compassion that helped set him apart. His kindness is remembered by all of us, and it built lasting bonds throughout our news division. "

He served as a correspondent in Chicago, Paris and Beirut, as well as at the White House. In 1980 he landed one of his biggest scoops, breaking the news of the Carter administration's failed attempt to rescue the American hostages being held in Iran. His reporting on the story brought him the Merriman Smith Memorial Award for excellence in presidential news coverage, making him the first broadcast journalist to receive that honor.

"John Palmer brought to the White House beat his foreign policy experience and a steady reassuring voice, in good times and in bad," NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell said in describing Palmer for a report aired Saturday evening.

It was also at NBC's Washington news bureau that Palmer met his wife, Nancy, a Nightly News producer.

In 1982 he became news anchor on the "Today" show during a highly successful period when Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley co-hosted, bringing a seriousness and calm to the program while often being the first newsman that millions of viewers heard from each morning. He remained there until 1989, when he was abruptly replaced by Deborah Norville, who was being groomed for a co-host role, and handed her old job on the show that preceded it, "NBC News at Sunrise." Norville succeeded Pauley shortly afterward but was herself replaced after the show's ratings suddenly dropped.

In 1986, Palmer anchored the first hours of NBC's coverage of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, as well as other special reports.

Palmer left the network in 1990 to anchor a syndicated news program, hosted the weekly "Discovery Journal" on The Discovery Channel, and anchored a daily newscast on the TV channel of the Christian Science Monitor. His interview subjects ranged from Carter and Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan to Anwar Sadat, Jonas Salk and Chuck Yeager.

In 1994, he was invited back to NBC as a Washington correspondent.

Speaking to anchor Brian Williams on NBC sister network MSNBC upon his retirement in 2002, Palmer looked back on his tenure with satisfaction, including the access it gave him to a succession of the nation's chief executives.

"I was enriched as a kid from the East Tennessee mountains," said the Kingsport, Tenn., native, "to be able to go fishing with Jimmy Carter, to go to the movies with Ronald Reagan, and to play golf with Bill Clinton."

After exiting NBC, he continued to work in journalism, including through hosting roles on Retirement Living TV, a network dedicated to seniors.

Several of Palmer's colleagues praised him on Twitter on Saturday evening.

Major Garrett, chief White House correspondent for CBS News, described Palmer as "a brilliant, competitive, ethical and gentle man."

Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, said she first met Palmer at the Reagan White House and described him as "one of the kindest/most joyful reporters on the beat."

NBC News reporter Chuck Todd said Palmer "epitomized professionalism at NBC News. And he was always generous with advice and counsel. A great news man."

Palmer was a graduate of Northwestern University and held a master's degree from Columbia University.

"John loved Sinatra, golf and fishing," Mitchell reported Saturday night, but she said he most treasured being a husband and father.

He and his wife Nancy have three grown daughters, one of whom is a producer for the Today show, one who works in the entertainment industry and one who is pursuing a journalism career in Washington.