ON GRAY MONDAY, OCT. 27, IN THE middle of the pandemonium of the stock market's steepest drop in a decade, the loudest cry from Wall Streeters wasn't "Sell high!," "Buy low!" or even "More Zantac!" Instead the question on panicky brokers' lips was, "Where's Maria?"

In fact, CNBC financial reporter Maria Bartiromo, 30—the person whom thousands of viewers look to each morning for up-to-the-minute market reports—wasn't broadcasting bulletins from the trading floor all day long because she was busy juggling other commitments: the Today show, NBC Nightly News and back at CNBC's Fort Lee, N.J., headquarters—prepping for her regular nightly duties cohosting that network's new offering Business Center. And that was all before the call came to appear the next night on the Late Show with David Letterman. "Where was Maria?" says her boss CNBC executive Bruno Cohen. "All over the globe."

No hedge about it—Bartiromo's stock is clearly on the rise. Her Sophia Loren looks may be responsible for her nicknames—Money Honey and Econo Babe—but it's her financial acumen that keeps viewers tuning in. "Maria's built a tremendous following on Wall Street because, above all, she's a helluva reporter," says Tyler Mathisen, her Business Center coanchor. Time will tell, though, if her blue-chip appeal will boost the show's sluggish ratings. Its format is being revamped to accommodate more news.

Bartiromo began her career as a CNN intern in 1989 while a senior at New York University. After graduating she worked her way up through the network's business-news department before being hired away by CNBC in 1993. Two years later she became the first TV journalist to report live from the stock exchange floor. At first some traders jostled her "because they wanted to see themselves on camera," recalls the Brooklyn native. "And some just bumped me purposely."

Bartiromo held her ground and stayed in front of the camera, which, says her sister Theresa Santoro, 35, a nurse, is where Maria was always headed. "We always knew Maria had flair," says Santoro, recalling her sister's childhood Cher impersonations. "She loved to be 'on.' "

Bartiromo, who is single and lives in Manhattan, isn't planning to slow down anytime soon. "When the markets are busy, I'm going 100 mph," she says. "The rest of the time I'm going 80."