Maria 2.0?

For the coming war between CNBC and Rupert Murdoch’s planned Fox Business Channel, the scrappy incumbent is grooming a secret weapon.

That weapon is a petite, blue-eyed brunette who makes her home at a cluttered desk in a cramped studio overlooking the New York Stock Exchange, where she is typically typing furiously on a laptop or asking questions by phone. Erin Burnett, 31, is a co-host on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street (weekdays at 9 a.m. ET), solo anchor of Street Signs (2 p.m. ET) and a frequent guest on network shows, including NBC’s Today. Since making her debut on Squawk during its relaunch in December 2005, the program is up 142% over first quarter 2006 in adults 25-54; Street Signs is up 57% in the demo.

Burnett rises every morning at 5 a.m. and hops in a car bound for the NYSE. Once there, she makes calls, checks e-mail, sets up potential guests and reads the papers—all while getting her hair blown-out and her makeup applied. “She’s a natural,” says Jonathan Wald, senior VP of business news for CNBC. “She’s both energetic and solicitous, but she never appears fawning.”

Perhaps her strongest asset, he adds, is how quickly she finds the spine of a good business story. “She can translate arcane business news to a vast general audience, or she can keep it narrow for those in the know. And she knows the difference.”

Rapid Rise

Burnett’s rapid rise has drawn endless speculation in the media and on Websites that she is being groomed by the network to ascend the “Money Honey” throne currently occupied by CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo. Some fans call her Maria 2.0.

Does it matter that some critics see her as just another pretty anchor? “Let’s be honest,” Burnett says. “It is a factor. Initially. But if you want to be good and if you want to be at the top of your game, you have to know the material, and you have to love it. Otherwise, regardless of your looks or your age or whatever, you won’t have any staying power. And look at how many women television journalists there are of all ages. It’s a really exciting time.” Does the looming Fox venture add to that excitement?

“Look, there is always a lot of pressure,” Burnett says.“There is pressure to innovate and pressure to be the best. Do we feel that more accutely now? Probably. But I think it is going to be hard for anyone to challenge us.”

“Most Likely To Host a Talk Show”

Despite winning the “Most Likely To Host a Talk Show” award in high school, Burnett never had a clear vision of what to do with her life.

Born and raised in a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Burnett attended St. Andrews High School in Maryland, where she played field hockey and squash, and later attended Williams College in Massachusetts, the college her two older sisters attended. At Williams, she studied political science and economics and then landed at an investment bank after graduation.

“I wish I could say I was one of those people that grew up wanting to be Jane Pauley,” she says. “But we only had three channels. There was no cable, no satellite; there wasn’t even an NBC affiliate in my town. I remember having a big crush on Dan Rather, and I remember watching the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, but I didn’t want to be a television journalist.”

Burnett penned a letter—at her sister’s urging—to a woman she had grown to admire, CNN’s Willow Bay, while she was an investment-banking analyst at Goldman Sachs. “It was basically a stalker letter,” Burnett laughs.

Much to her surprise, Bay telephoned and invited Burnett to visit the CNN offices. Bay, clearly impressed, offered her a position with the network a few days later. Burnett stayed in New York, quickly ascending the ranks of CNN’s Moneyline as both a writer and a booker.

From CNN, she moved to Citigroup to launch an online news network and then took a position at Bloomberg, where she anchored two hours of programming daily—and finally discovered her true passion.

“I had never wanted to be on camera,” Burnett says. “But once I started getting the interviews and connecting with people, I didn’t want to stop.” After two years at Bloomberg, she jumped to CNBC.

Ready for Anything

At 8:55 a.m., Burnett makes her way gracefully down the perilously narrow staircase that leads onto the bustling Stock Exchange floor with a few minutes to spare before Squawk on the Street begins.

“The goal of this hour is to be breathless,” she explains, oblivious to shouting traders nearby. “We want to throw out as many names as we can. We want to get the most information out there.”

Once the cameras start rolling, Burnett is unflappable. Despite her age and relative inexperience, she holds her own like a heavyweight.

She concedes, however, to being caught off-guard from time to time in the fast-paced, live broadcast. “The train bombing in India? Or when Boris Yeltsin died? These events affect the market. We have to be ready for anything.”

In her free time, she unwinds in her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I try to recharge my batteries on the weekend and read,” she says, citing The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova as recent favorite. “I try to get to the gym a few days a week, but I end up finding story ideas most of the time, instead. I think there is a business angle to everything.”