During his 47 years at the paper, he took thousands of photos. He was shot at while taking photos during the 1968 city riots, chronicled the 1976 visit of the Tall Ships to the harbor and photographed the 1977 inauguration of President Jimmy Carter. Colleagues admired his portrait work.
He moved to Baltimore and was a 1961 Patterson High School graduate. That year, he became a United Press International telephoto operator and worked in the old News-Post building on Pratt Street. Friends said he learned news photography there, and when a vacancy opened at The Sun in September 1963, he took the job.
"He was always the consummate professional," said Robert Hamilton, the Sun's director of photography. "Swag was unflappable, with a love for his job and his co-workers. He was affable and easy to approach."
Until being named a photo editor for The Sun in 1983, he spent 20 years photographing mayors and governors, ball games and crime scenes. His 1968 riot work included scenes of the National Guard on North Avenue and at the city jail. His 26 photos of the 1980 Preakness were studied by members of the Maryland Racing Commission when a dispute arose between the riders of Codex and Genuine Risk.
"He loved to do everything, a little sports, news or features," said William G. Hotz Sr., a retired Sun photographer who lives in Berlin on the Eastern Shore. "He was a creative person, and it showed in his work."
Mr. Hotz recalled one day when Mr. Swagger put his camera down for a moment and a driver flattened his Rolleiflex.
"Swag just rolled with it and said, 'Well, that's the way it happens,' " Mr. Hotz said.
After working on news assignments for 20 years, Mr. Swagger became an editor and reviewed incoming photos for publication each evening.
"He was happy to share his knowledge of photography with anyone who had an interest," Mr. Hamilton said. "He would take you under his wing."
He also befriended a Sun colleague, film critic Stephen Hunter, who went on to write numerous thriller novels. Mr. Hunter used Mr. Swagger's surname for his character, Bob Lee Swagger, a sniper who appears in "Point of Impact" and other novels.
"Bob Lee Swagger isn't my alter ego, either," Mr. Swagger wrote in 2007 in a Sun article. "While I'm a pretty good rifleman and hunter of the practical variety, my shooting and possible courage have never been tested in combat."
Mr. Hunter said Wednesday, "Swag ushered me into gun culture. He took me out shooting. ... He was really my mentor. As he read my manuscripts, he was a very good editor. He reacted to what I'd written in a practical way, with a gruff, bearlike earnestness. He was useful as hell and had a marvelous technical intelligence."
Friends said that Mr. Swagger loved going to flea markets and finding old cameras that he would tinker with. He was a good cook and baker - he liked to bake his own bread - and kept a jar of pretzels on his desk for others to sample.
Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.
Survivors include his fiancee, Sherri Bruce of Halethorpe; four daughters, Vikki Jamack, Sherri Willig and Cindi Willig, all of Edgewood, and Kaity Swagger of Ellicott City; three brothers, Robert Swiger and Paul Swiger, both of Baltimore, and David Swager of Virginia; and seven grandchildren. His marriages to Vicki Irwin, Josephine Hartlove and Peggy Krasnansky ended in divorce.