THERE was an element of inevitability that Norris McWhirter would make his name by editing the reference book that became the greatest success in publishing history. He and his identical twin, Ross, absorbed the voluminous information that was brought daily to their home. They squirrelled away a mine of useless information and later turned it to gold in the Guinness Book of Records.

It has now sold more than 100 million copies in some 50 languages and over 100 countries, sometimes even outselling the Bible. The pair launched the record book in 1955, securing the deal when the head of the brewery asked them which language employed the fewest irregular verbs. They correctly identified Turkish, which has just one.

They developed polymath tendencies thanks to their Glasgow-born father, William, editor of the Daily Mail

and managing director of Associated Newspapers and Northcliffe Newspapers, who instilled the journalistic virtues of research and accuracy. ''He was the first person to be editor of three Fleet Street newspapers before the war, and he used to bring home about 150 papers a week, plus reference books,'' recalled Norris, ''so from a very early age we cut our teeth on facts and figures.''

The final statistic in a remarkable career was penned on Monday evening. Norris McWhirter suffered a fatal heart attack while playing tennis in the garden of his home, at Kington Langley in Wiltshire.

His death at 78 comes just before the former Scottish international sprinter was to play a central role in the May 6 celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannister's breaking of the four-minute barrier for the mile. McWhirter was announcer at the Oxford meeting, and with a fine sense of theatre had rehearsed his spiel in his bath the previous evening.

He was word-perfect when Bannister defied the elements on the Iffley Road cinders in 1954: ''As a result of event four, the one mile, the winner was

R G Bannister of Exeter and Merton Colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a track record, an English native record, a United Kingdom record, a European record, in a time of three minutes . . .'' The remainder was drowned in the roar of spectators who had touched history.

The brothers both went to Marlborough College and

Trinity, Oxford. Both saw wartime service in different minesweepers (which collided with one another) and were in the Achilles club quartet which won the AAA 4 x 110 yard

relay championship. Norris, however, was the quicker.

He represented Scotland at athletics from 1950 to '52, was a winger with rugby club Saracens and played for Middlesex in 1950.

In 1951, while still active athletes, the twins published Get to your Marks. It was Britain's first major athletics statistics and history book, regarded as a masterpiece. That same year, at the AAA championships, Gordon Pirie set a UK six-mile record, Bannister won the mile in 4:07.8, and Norris was fourth in the 220 yards. He was once Britain's fourth fastest sprinter, with 10.7 and 21.7 for the 100 and 200m, times which then ranked 14th and 16th on the UK all-time lists. He won the Middlesex 100 and 220-yard titles five times and might have had British vests, but contemporaries included an Olympic finalist in McDonald Bailey

and 1950 European 200m champion Brian Shenton.

The brothers were in business, as McWhirter Twins Ltd, supplying statistical data and facts to the media, when Bannister's pacemaker, Chris Chataway, introduced them to Guinness. Norris remained associated with the book until 1996, but Ross was murdered by the IRA in 1975 after offering (pounds) 50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of IRA bombers. Norris described his feelings then: ''Not so much bereaved, but it was an amputation.''

He formed the Freedom Association and campaigned controversially throughout his life for the extreme right and

the rule of law. His intellectual

logic was usually damning, but he championed a legion of lost causes. One successful action, however, in the European courts, affirmed the right of rail workers not to belong to a closed shop, which then

hastened the decline of trade-union influence.

Like his brother, he stood unsuccessfully as a Tory parliamentary candidate. Norris attempted to have athletics officials charged with blackmail over suggestions that Zola Budd be banned for having run in a South African cross-country race when that country was excluded from athletics, and he tried to sue the satirical programme, Spitting Image, for lampooning him subliminally with a ''grotesque and ridiculing'' caricature. Other causes included an attempt to charge the then foreign secretary,

Douglas Hurd, with treason, for breach of Magna Carta; attacks on CND; promoting the right of British cricketers to tour South Africa; and trying to prevent UK athletes from going to the 1980 Olympics.

McWhirter worked for many years with the London Evening Star and The Observer, and covered five Olympics for radio and TV. When the first Olympics broadcast by satellite (Tokyo, 1960) lost sound, he commentated live on the silent pictures. Like David Coleman after him, he owed much to another meticulous statistician, Stan Greenberg. Norris was in a UK studio, covering the 1968 Mexico Olympics, when Bob Beamon broke the world long jump record. It was to last 23 years. Greenberg fed McWhirter the line that this was like somebody jumping through the front-room window and straight out the back door.

In middle age, he featured with Roy Castle as co-presenter of 1970s and '80s BBC Record Breakers, becoming a household name as he amazed a new generation with his memory. He did not like entering pub quizzes, because of his ignorance of pop-icon culture. At dinner parties, if someone launched into a subject and got their facts wrong, his policy was to remain silent: ''Except if they're aggressive or unpleasant. Then sometimes one's self-restraint gives out,'' as he put it. On one occasion he ridiculed a man who claimed his grandfather had seen the last public execution. McWhirter then demonstrated that he could never have seen Irishman Michael Barrett executed in 1864: ''but one doesn't bother, normally.''

He was twice married: first in 1957 to Carol (died 1987), and then to Tessa (1991), who survives him. He leaves a son, Alasdair and daughter, Jane.

Robert Norris Dewar McWhirter, athlete, author, publisher, and broadcaster; born August 12, 1925, died

April 19, 2004.