Just outside the medals in the 200m medley earlier in the meet, Litchfield qualified second-fastest for yesterday’s medal race.
But despite being in the mix for the medals throughout, he was edged out in the final freestyle leg by Japan’s Daiya Seto, who came through to snatch bronze by just under half a second.
The consolation for Litchfield was a new Commonwealth record of 4:09.62, and he also went exactly two seconds faster than he swam in last year’s Olympic final where he also finished fourth to Seto in Rio.
Olympic silver medallist Chase Kalisz took the title in Budapest in a new Championship record of 4:05.90.
Litchfield said afterwards he had nothing left at the end.
“What can you do? You can’t control what other people do,” said the 22-year-old.
“It is what it is, but I’m really happy with the time. I just couldn’t quite pull it together at the end. That last 25 felt horrible, the hardest 25m of my life. It was just not great at all and I was just trying to hold on.
“Chase is a great breaststroker, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’ll just work on my own swim.”
Litchfield was only eight hundredths of a second behind Kalisz at the halfway stage before the American’s superior breaststroke saw him pull away and home favourite David Verraszto eventually came through for silver.
Despite missing out on a first major international medal again, Litchfield remains confident he is still heading in the right direction. “If you look at my curve for the last three years, there has been a massive drop in times for me,” he added.
“If we keep doing that, which we will over the next few years, then we will be in with a shout for Tokyo.
“I don’t think this week has highlighted a massive amount of things I need to work on, it’s just putting the little things right and the times will come down.
“I’ve got a few weeks off now, just chilling and getting away from it all and then I’ll be back at it again at the end of September.”
Adam Peaty, James Guy, Chris Walker-Hebborn and Duncan Scott took Great Britain’s World Championships medal haul to seven with 4x100m medley relay silver behind the United States.
Peaty’s 50m and 100m breaststroke golden double, Ben Proud’s 50m butterfly win and the 4x200m men’s freestyle relay success on Friday were followed by two bronze medals on Saturday – for Proud in the 50m freestyle and Guy in the 100m butterfly.
Peaty and Guy each claimed their third medals of the eight-day competition by combining with Walker-Hebborn and Scott in the relay, the final event.
The USA took gold in 3:27.91 as Caeleb Dressel claimed his seventh gold of the competition after combining with Matt Grevers, Kevin Cordes and Nathan Adrian.
The British quartet clocked 3:28.95 while bronze went to Russia in 3:29.76.
Walker-Hebborn, Peaty, Guy and Scott had claimed Olympic silver in Rio behind the USA.
Despite the retirement of 23-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps, the USA were favourites for last night’s final, when Dressel was drafted in after his three golds in a single session on Saturday evening.
Peaty, the world 50m and 100m breaststroke champion, was rested for yesterday morning’s heat as Ross Murdoch swam the second leg, and entered the water in seventh place after Walker-Hebborn’s opening backstroke leg.
Peaty touched the wall first, with a phenomenal split of 56.91.
Guy - whose 100m butterfly bronze on Saturday followed his decisive role in the 4x200m freestyle relay gold on Friday - swam the butterfly leg and was overhauled by Dressel as he handed over to Scott in second place.
Freestyler Scott held on without threatening to beat Adrian as Britain finished on the podium for a seventh time.
Kathleen Dawson, Sarah Vasey, Charlotte Atkinson and Freya Anderson finished seventh in the corresponding women’s event won by the USA in 3:51.55 - a world record.
The British quartet finished in 3:59.51 as Russia took silver and Australia bronze behind the USA’s Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Kelsi Worrell and Simone Manuel.
Hannah Miley was eighth in the women’s 400m individual medley, won by Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu in a championship record of 4:29.33,- beating her own eight-year-old best.
Mireia Belmonte of Spain was second in 4:32.17, Sydney Pickrem of Canada took bronze in 4:32.88 and Miley finished in 4:38.34, slower than her qualifying swim.
The Scot was fourth at the Rio Olympics.
You can help the next generation of young British swimmers by getting involved in SportsAid Week this September with five-time Paralympic champion Ellie Simmonds OBE. Find out more about how you can support the week of fun and fundraising by visiting www.sportsaid.org.uk/sportsaidweek.